Wellness

I tried Norma Shearer's super-Canadian morning routine for a week to see if her 1930s secrets hold up

Could cold showers and hearty porridge actually turn me into a morning person?

Could cold showers and hearty porridge actually turn me into a morning person?

(Credit: Percy Hilburn/MGM Pictures)

As someone whose day starts by scrolling through Twitter motionless for a substantial stretch of time, followed by running around the apartment frantically to cram everything else into the last 20 minutes before I need to leave for work, it's safe to say that my morning routine could use a serious glow up. Morning rituals of successful celebrities, the likes of which we consume with great intensity and, to a far lesser degree, follow-through, have been whispered about since the days of Tutankhamun. Meal prep or "meditating for a few minutes" or any activity other than simply getting dressed and brushing our teeth feels both mystical and attainable — like we're just one green juice away from being crowned our Best Self.

And since the secrets of Old Hollywood starlets have treated me swimmingly in the skin care department, I decided to turn to another silver screen darling to find out if she could finally help me become the morning person I knew I could be.

She may not be a household name anymore, but Montreal-born Norma Shearer was one of the most famous film stars of the '20s and '30s. She played everyone from Juliet to Marie Antoinette, was nominated for five Best Actress Academy Awards and won one for 1930's The Divorcee, inhabiting the exact type of role she became known for: bold, witty, sexually liberated women who challenged the dominant conventions of femininity at the time. Shearer also lived into her 80s, so clearly she was doing something right.  

(Credit: Getty Images)

In 1929, the actress gave an extensive interview to the Pittsburgh Press, where she described her morning ritual as such:

"Before I get out of bed in the morning I have a glass of hot water and then I go through a five-minute set of exercises in bed. These are stretching and bending exercises which awaken me and give me pep to start the day.

"A cold shower follows and, on days when I am very ambitious, a swim. I dress and go down for breakfast which is an old-fashioned one, orange juice first and then real Canadian porridge (the kind that is cooked the night before) toast and coffee."

The main reason I was drawn to Shearer's AM routine? It's drastically different from my own. Aside from remaining sedentary for most of that coveted morning time, I tend to shower at night and almost never eat breakfast (I know). I also loved how Shearer kept things ultra-Canadian — subjecting yourself to sub-zero temperatures before going to town on a hearty oat-based meal is practically an act of patriotism in this country.

(Credit: Getty Images)

On top of all that, there seemed to be some pretty substantial, science-backed method to Shearer's madness. Light stretching has been shown to activate and warm muscles, increase flexibility, reduce some depressive symptoms and promote cardiovascular health by increasing heart rate variability, all of which can help the body and mind gear up for the day ahead. The virtues of cold showers have been sung by researchers and health experts alike and numerous studies point to their ability to increase circulation, which in turn helps to strengthen the immune system by producing more white blood cells, up energy levels, promote the growth of cells that can aid in fat burning and possibly even boost our mood by bringing on a rush of endorphins. Breakfast has long been lauded as the most important meal of the day, as it's been shown to kickstart the metabolism and stabilize blood pressure, especially when the foods are high in fibre, like Shearer's porridge. While the benefits of drinking hot water have been discussed all over the Internet, and the practice remains a staple in the diets of celebs and supermodels, it was virtually impossible to find any scientific studies to back up its value, aside from the role it plays in keeping us hydrated. That being said, Ayurvedic medicine has purported for centuries that drinking hot water helps to flush out toxins in the body and cleanse the digestive system.

Tackling Shearer's morning routine for a whole week seemed simple enough at first. I found a solid set of stretches I could do in bed, tracked down a tasty-looking overnight oats recipe for an updated take on porridge, stocked up on orange juice and even arranged to swim at a friend's condo on one of the days. In practice it started out great too — drinking a big glass of warm water upon waking up helped me feel refreshed, hydrated and awake, and stretching in bed was a revelation. After just a few minutes, my muscles felt warm and relaxed, and it was nice to focus on something other than my Twitter feed in those groggy morning moments.

Things took a sharp turn at the shower, though. In addition to being a night-bather, my preferred water temperature can be classified as scalding, so I knew that integrating cold showers into my morning would be a challenge. I didn't, however, anticipate how incredibly miserable they would make me. For the few short minutes I could actually stand being in there each day, I shivered constantly and clenched all the muscles in my body so tight that I actually emerged feeling stiff and tired, as if I'd expended all my energy just trying to weather the cold water. So while it may have been helping to increase my circulation, there didn't seem to be any mood-boosting results for me. With that in mind, I was really dreading the end of week swim that was headed my way. But surprisingly, where the showers made my body tense and my disposition cranky, the swim jolted me, picking up where the stretching left off in terms of activating my muscles and providing a similar endorphin rush to what I've experienced during morning jogs.

Norma Shearer taking a dip with her husband in 1930. (Credit: Getty Images)

Breakfast was another challenge. I was able to adapt to eating earlier than usual with much more ease than I anticipated, but it was really hard to get excited about nourishing my body with cold, wet oats. I found myself eating less and less each day, before skipping out all together on Friday and buying myself a bagel. I don't fault the recipe for this though, since my negativity toward it had much more to do with my preference for warm, savoury foods than anything else. However, unlike the cold showers, despite my lack of enthusiasm for my meal, I could feel its effects big time. My energy levels increased and I had a more positive attitude in those hours before lunch, which made me much more productive and focused at work. Breakfast huh, who knew?

All in all, though I loathed certain aspects of the morning ritual Norma Shearer swore by, I've actually taken some of her tips and made them a permanent part of my days. I've been able to keep up the habit of drinking warm water and stretching first thing, and have started making egg bakes on Sundays so that I'll have hearty (savoury) breakfasts for the week — something I genuinely thought I'd never be able to do. While circumstances make it difficult to go for regular morning swims, I'm challenging myself to see if I can do it a couple times a month. So if you're looking to revamp your AM routine in true canuck style, give Shearer's a shot. It may not convince you to take cold showers forever, but you're bound to find something that will make your mornings a little brighter and healthier, too.