28 May Float Therapy Chronicles: Why I Float
As a personal trainer, I am constantly searching for ways to optimize the health and performance of both myself and my clients. When a friend first asked me to try float therapy a few years ago, admittedly, I was extremely skeptical to the idea that lying down in a pool saturated in salt for an hour could be beneficial (as I know many of you can probably relate). I am the type of person who will try (almost) anything once, so sure enough I scheduled my first appointment. Little did I know that this would later become something I now consider one of the more powerful tools for both my personal growth and overall health. Although float therapy tanks have been around since the 1970’s, they have become increasingly popular over the past 15 years with studios popping up all over the country and gaining praise by sports icons of the likes of Tom Brady and Steph Curry as well as Joe Rogan and Tim Ferriss among many others. In this article I will be discussing the benefits that floating has on athletic performance for anyone from the high-level athlete to the middle-aged woman who can’t seem to lose weight no matter what she tries to the weekend warrior with aches and pains when he runs or finishes a session at the gym.
What is floating?
Floating, or REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy), reduces sensory input to the nervous system through a pool of water, saturated in hundreds of pounds of magnesium sulfate-rich Epson salt. At all times, even during our sleep, the body is constantly processing inputs via sensory signals from visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, thermal, tactile, vestibular, gravitational and proprioceptive channels. Float pods or tanks are designed to minimize these channels, including movement and speech. The float tank is filled with Epson salt which allows the body to float effortlessly as if you were laying in the Dead Sea. The water temperature is set between 94-95 degrees relative to your body temperature, minimizing the sense of touch and the tank is both sound and light proof. After taking a shower to remove any toxins, oils or products you have on, you lay in this pool of water, typically for either 60 or 90 minutes. I find that it allows me to really focus on my thoughts and raise conscious awareness to what is going on within my mind. Sometimes I focus on nothing at all to achieve a state of relaxation and mindfulness which would be much more difficult in other settings. In today’s world of constant distractions and information overload, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to focus and think clearly. Americans receive an average of 46 push notifications on our phones per day and speaking from personal experience this number is often double, triple or even quadruple for most millennials. We process an average of 174 newspaper’s worth of information daily! Float tanks have also been shown to assist with PTSD, anxiety and depression among many other conditions. However, as stated earlier I will be specifically highlighting the effects floating has on those who are physically active or may be limited in their activity due to a variety of pain-related ailments.
What are the benefits of float therapy?
In my opinion, stress reduction is the greatest benefit to float therapy and is the catalyst behind most of the other great health benefits that has been observed from REST. Cortisol, a catabolic hormone, is released in the body along with adrenaline when we are stressed. This triggers our sympathetic nervous system, aka the “fight or flight” response. Our bodies only have a limited amount of energy available so this response tells our body to pause the less critical processes in the body such as digestion and immune function in order to use all possible energy to run away or fight off our enemies. In the past, after the perceived threat was gone, our bodies would switch to the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). This is when heart rate and blood pressure go down, we feel relaxed and our brain sends hunger signals to refuel the energy that we have burned during this event. This is why you get those sugar or fat cravings when you are feeling stressed.
But this is the 20th century and most of us do not have to run from tigers… so how are these systems still applicable today? Let’s start with your boss at work. The looming deadlines which never seem to end. Relationship issues. Bills to pay. That jack*ss who cut you off on the drive home. Add in all the smartphone notifications/emails you receive daily and you’ll see how most people’s bodies are in a constant feedback loop of chronic stress. The issue is that our ancestors had to physically exert themselves in a “fight or flight” event so after the danger was gone their body would automatically kick into the parasympathetic state. Our body is meant to handle acute stress; however, chronic stress can lead to increased inflammation, mood fluctuations, fatigue, anxiety, depression, brain fog, fat gain (especially around the stomach area), digestive, thyroid and immune issues as well as the inability to gain muscle mass.
Physical exercise is also an acute stressor which is usually good for the body but depending how much stress a person has in other aspects outside of the gym, they may be pushing their body further over the edge which can be detrimental to the physical results they have worked so hard for and drain them of energy. I see it in the gym all the time. A new client will tell me they are on a consistent strength training routine, doing cardio workouts regularly and despite eating a clean diet they still cannot seem to lose weight or even worse are gaining weight. On paper everything they are doing looks good, however, a deeper dive will usually show that they have high levels of stress due to factors outside of the gym and are doing nothing to counter it. A decrease in stress levels will result in better hormone product, body composition and sleep, all which are vital for achieving optimal results in a fitness program.
When people have high-levels of stress hindering their results, I make some suggestions to help lower stress and mindfulness meditation is always on top of the list as it has been proven to be the most effective and practical tool we currently have available to reduce cortisol levels. There are lots of misconceptions about what “mindfulness” really is but in layman’s terms, you are simply teaching your body to bring greater awareness to the thoughts, sensations and emotions that arise from our mind and body as well as becoming more aware of our surroundings. This practice is effective because it teaches us to focus on the present moment; The cause of stress is when we are constantly thinking about the future or the past. When we are living in the moment, stress is irrelevant.
As with many other skills, the practice of mindfulness usually takes weeks or even months to begin to learn so often times people get discouraged and give up before they are able to establish a consistent practice and see any improvements. This is where float therapy comes in. Whether you are interested in the practice of mindfulness or not, float therapy is a quick way for anyone to achieve a deep sense of relation. And if you are looking to learn mindfulness, and I believe just about every single person can benefit from this, jumping in a float tank is a quickest way to achieve this state.
Magnesium is a mineral that controls stress levels and due to various factors, such as not eating a well-balanced diet and the soil we grow crops being depleted of minerals, over 80% of the population is deficient in magnesium. It is responsible for over 300 enzyme reactions in the body. I personally supplement with 300-400mg of magnesium citrate through a product called Natural Calm and have undoubtably seen improvements in my sleep quality, relaxation and overall energy levels. By laying in a float tank, we absorb this mineral through our skin which bypasses the digestive system, increasing the bio-availability. In a recent study, participants floated with limited sensory input 8 times over the course of 2 weeks and the result was their serum cortisol decreased by 21.6%. That is a huge difference!
Float therapy has also been shown to increase recovery times which is why it has emerged as a widespread recovery method for collegiate and professional teams such as the St. Louis Rams, New Orleans Saints, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia Union, Notre Dame and Clemson just to name a few. In 2015 Bill Belichick had multiple tanks installed in Gillette Stadium and Tom Brady reportably has a commercial tank in excess of $30,000 installed in his home. Not surprisingly, most athletes cite relaxation as their primary reason they float but this is not the only way that sensory deprivation is aiding in their recovery.
First, floating helps you bounce back from workouts by shuttling lactic acid out of the body. Lactic acid is created when the body breaks down glucose, or produces energy anaerobically. It is that burning sensation you get when you are lifting weights or during an intense run. In a study of 24 college students, floating was shown to decrease blood lactate levels by 25% in a one-hour session without exercise beforehand. This results in better sports performance and increased ability to hit your next session hard without the risk of over-training.
The second way in which floating assists recovery is by increasing rest. Many individuals, including Patriots players and coaches report that a 45-minute float is equivalent to 4 hours of sleep. In fairness, I always try to maintain my skepticism until proven otherwise and although I’m not 100% convinced on the validity of this statement, I definitely feel completely recharged when I get out of the tank and always get a great night’s sleep after which is essential for recovering from workouts. That being said, if you are going to float, make sure you block out at least 7-9 hours to sleep that night to maximize the post-float benefits.
The effect of sensory deprivation tank therapy on chronic pain has been confirmed by several studies. It is shown to be effective in treating tension headaches, fibromyalgia, and general pain, especially when stress related. Due to the relaxation effects, it reduces muscle tension which can help ease the symptoms of joint pain and arthritis. Individuals with back pain can really benefit as being suspended in water minimizes the effect of gravity and helps align the natural position of the spine which eases the pressure on the disks and allows for more space between vertebrae. People often report that their pain is fully or partially subsided for 2-3 days or even weeks after floating.
Float Into Action
When used properly, float therapy can be an excellent tool for stress reduction, recovery and pain management. The harder you train, the more you should be prioritizing your recovery. To keep up with my active lifestyle, I try to include float therapy as often as time permits to bounce back from hard workouts, stay healthy and optimize my performance. Whether you are a hard-charging athlete, a weekend warrior looking to minimize stress and maximize results or are just looking for pain relief, there is no denying the benefits that floating has to offer.
I have tried multiple float spas and chose to become a member at Infinity Float. To me, cleanliness is critical and they do an excellent job of always keeping this spa immaculate; a 20-minute filtration cycle along with UV sanitation is ran between each float. I like how they have a total of 4 private rooms, each equipped with its own flotation device and showers and they have both float pods (which I prefer) along with float pools, which provide more space and are a good option if you have fears of confinement or have significant mobility issues. I definitely encourage you to give it a try!