The third pillar

How adapting to the environment can improve human health

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Courtesy of Scott Carney/Laura Krantz
Exercising in various temperatures is good for your health, according to Scott Carney’s new book What Doesn’t Kill Us.

Denver-based investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney is skeptical of anyone who alleges to possess unnatural human ability. He’s debunked many of these phonies and has reported on the dangers of such claims. In his career he’s seen a man die after following a guru’s teachings and a woman who said she’d reached enlightenment commit suicide a short time later. 

So when hearing about Dutch guru Wim Hof, who said he was able to control his body temperature with his mind, Carney was cynical. He flew to Poland to confirm his doubts, but this time it was different. Why? Because when Carney tried Hof’s methods, they worked.

Carney details this process in his new book What Doesn’t Kill Us. He chronicles Hof’s teachings and also researches the human body to understand just what it’s capable of. The book also follows his own transformation and accomplishments, including hiking Kilimanjaro in 28 hours, wearing shorts.

Carney’s journey starts a few years ago in Poland. Within just a few days of working with Hof, Carney noticed significant changes in his body. Before using Hof’s breathing technique, for example, Carney could do 20 pushups. After using the technique, he could do 40.

He also learned to acclimatize. Carney had come from the palm trees of Los Angeles to snow in Poland, yet it only took him a short time to learn how to control his body temperature.

“I ended up climbing up a mountain in Poland in the winter that stopped the Nazis,” he says. “I was eight hours on a mountain at 2 degrees Fahrenheit and I was sweating the whole time. … It was remarkable at the time that [Hof] not only made these claims, ‘I can consciously make you control your body temperature,’ but he showed me how to do it, and it only took a couple of days.”

While writing the book, Carney says he realized that the human body is built to withstand a lot, and it is able to adapt quickly. But over the last century, most people stopped testing those limits.

“Our species is 200,000 years old and in that time we had constant variation in environment, changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure. We’d essentially have to be strong to survive,” he says. “But if we fast forward to the present day, we don’t ever have variation. We live at 72 degrees basically all year round. Without that stimulus, those muscles never get exercised. So they’re weak.”

This lack of temperature variation can be linked to weak circulatory systems and bad cardiovascular health, which is a major cause of death in the United States.

See Scott Carney (right) at Boulder Book Store on  Jan. 31. Courtesy of Scott Carney
See Scott Carney (right) at Boulder Book Store on Jan. 31.

By reintroducing temperature variance, those muscles get a workout, beyond that hour or two hitting the gym, Carney says.

“Someone can have a chiseled six pack and look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but if they live at 72 degrees they’re whole life, they have no ability to activate those systems. They’re all autonomic, meaning you don’t have conscious control over them,” he says. And the only way to do that, is to put yourself in a cold environment, then put yourself in a hot environment. … That squinching and releasing, that’s how you do it.”

Through his research Carney concludes that the concept of health is more than just diet and exercise.

“There’s a third pillar that we’ve forgotten about: how your body responds to the immediate place where you inhabit,” he says. “Once people take this lesson and understand it … you see people’s health vastly improve.”

He’s seen these practices cure obesity, heart disease and even auto immune illnesses like Crohn’s disease and diabetes.

So Carney’s advice is simple: Get cold.

“What I do is jump into ice water, I roll in the snow, I take cold showers to increase and modulate my metabolism,” he says. “And it’s not comfortable at first, but after you start doing it a lot, you start releasing all these endorphins and that actually feels fine.”

As a society, we’ve become reliant on comfort. Carney says comfort can be great, but it can also hold our bodies back.

“Our whole society is going down that idea of, ‘Reduce stimulus, reduce stimulus, reduce stimulus,’” he says. “As a biological being, you have to push back, and when you start pushing back, you get stronger. … We want to have a place where we are strong and healthy, and that in strength and healthiness there is a source of comfort.”

In the book, Carney says one his goals in this journey was to become more human. And he says he thinks he’s achieved that, but more importantly, “Anyone can. You can too.”

On the Bill: Scott Carney — What Doesn’t Kill Us. 7:30 p.m.  Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.