Healthy Outlook: Some like it cold — A trip to the cryospa

Cryotherapy gives new meaning to 'chilling'

Journal-World health reporter Mackenzie Clark is shown inside a cryosauna at Optimal Wellness and Cryospa, 4931 W. Sixth St.

The lowest naturally occurring temperature ever recorded on Earth was minus 128 degrees in 1983 in Antarctica. That almost qualifies as “Level 1” for the folks at Optimal Wellness and Cryospa, 4931 W. Sixth St., but not quite.

In April, we reported that the cryospa was coming to town. Judging by the reaction my own family gave me (“That’ll kill you!” was my father’s immediate response), I’m guessing a lot of folks are wondering what it’s all about. I visited recently to find out.

One of the biggest questions people seem to have is why anyone would want to step naked into an unearthly frozen chamber. Some of the benefits Optimal touts are decreased inflammation, increased performance levels, increased metabolism and a reduction of pain and fatigue.

As I wrote in my last column, recovery is essential to a healthy fitness regimen. If cryotherapy could aid in that process, I was willing to give it a try.

The spa’s general manager, Tashina Case, had told me beforehand that I would probably benefit most from a cryotherapy session if I came in a few hours after fairly intense exercise. So that morning I spent a couple of hours on some calorie-torching strength training with new moves, which naturally would leave me a bit more sore than usual.

Tashina Case and her mother, Vicki Downer, are general manager and assistant manager of Optimal Wellness and Cryospa, 4931 W. Sixth St.

First, I signed a waiver. It’s a basic liability document, mostly to let them know I don’t have any pre-existing conditions that could’ve been an issue — mainly heart problems such as uncontrolled high blood pressure, chest pain or blood clots, as well as pregnancy, open sores or nerve pain.

Case walked me to the back where the cryosauna and its accompanying nitrogen tanks sit. She started the machine cooling, walking me through each step, then directed me to the small, adjacent changing room.

The spa provides cozy socks, waterproof shoes, gloves or mittens (or both, if you so choose), and a robe or wrap to wear into the chamber. All jewelry and anything metal must come off, but undergarments are optional as long as they don’t have underwire.

When the machine was ready, I stepped in and handed my robe over the top to Case. Somehow being nearly naked in this dry chamber, even at temperatures colder than anything nature has ever reached, was not as jarring as stepping outside on a brutal winter day.

This was nothing like jumping into a cold swimming pool. It’s a feeling that is very difficult to describe, but I think because your head doesn’t freeze, it saves you from many of the unpleasant side effects of being cold. It seems as though keeping your head at room temperature tricks your brain into thinking it doesn’t need to go into self-preservation mode.

Journal-World health reporter Mackenzie Clark, left, is shown inside the cryosauna at Optimal Wellness and Cryospa as general manager Tashina Case stands by.

It’s important to move while you’re in the cryosauna, and I kept jogging in place for most of my session. Case did a great job of keeping my mind off the cold, and she even tolerated my sad rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” when I hit the midpoint.

As a first-timer, I spent three minutes at “Level 1” — 130 degrees below zero. Case was impressed that I lasted the full three minutes; I told her I’m just that stubborn. (I’m all about getting the best bang for my buck, so I wasn’t going to short myself.) Levels 2 and 3, for those who are curious, are minus 166 and minus 184 F.

Warming up afterward was an amazing feeling. Sensation slowly came over my skin in waves as I dressed. I experienced an immediate rush of endorphins, as many cryo practitioners claim you will.

“The very first time I did it, that (endorphin rush) was the main thing I saw, and I slept really well that night,” Case told me.

As part of Optimal’s $25 first-timer special, it was then time for me to try NormaTec. You may have seen photos of LeBron James in NormaTec gear — he and many other athletes use it to speed recovery (and we all know LeBron needs help with his leg cramps).

Tashina Case, general manager of Optimal Wellness and Cryospa, adjusts NormaTec settings for Journal-World health reporter Mackenzie Clark.

I chose to try it on my legs; the other options are hips or arms. Basically, you put your feet and legs inside these big, puffy sleeves. The sleeves then get hooked to a little machine that controls them, and they start compressing and releasing, pulsing over five “zones” up and down your legs. They kind of feel like giant blood pressure cuffs, but there’s no discomfort — and if there is, you can simply adjust the machine’s settings to not “squeeze” you as hard.

Case explained that the NormaTec flushes lactic acid out of your muscles, and after really strenuous exercise or any kind of muscle soreness, that helps circulation.

Immediately after I got home, I jotted down this note: “My body feels like I worked out today and like I pushed myself hard and I need a lot of food to refuel — however, I have none of the soreness or aches and pains that I would normally associate with such a hard workout.”

That feeling lasted. The next morning, I wrote that my hips felt “more free, somehow,” and that I had a “lingering weightless sort of feeling.” Late that afternoon, I began to feel a bit of soreness creeping back into my muscles, but nothing like what I would normally have expected.

Case said much like diet and exercise, making cryotherapy a habit — generally two to three times per week — allows you to unlock its full benefits. One visit wouldn’t magically take away all soreness.

“You’ll see some kind of benefits from it that first time, but you’re going to see so many more results the more frequently you do it,” she said.