If you’ve seen people plunging into troughs of ice water – or actual frozen lakes – and thought “not for me,” you’re not alone.
Ice bathing and other cold-water therapy have been growing in popularity for some time, yet it may still seem like a brutal way to get health gains.
Plus, a recent study suggests that cold-water immersion after workouts might be more harmful than helpful.
Is a chilly dip worth the shock?
Can you get the benefits without the ice?
Read on to find out.
Research Promising, but More Needed
Ice baths and their touted benefits go back thousands of years, but the science on how they help the body is still scant, not fully understood, and debated.
Researchers say the results from small studies are promising, yet not enough to confirm all benefits. Cold-water therapy has shown positive effects like improved circulation, increased energy, mental clarity, better moods, stronger immunity, and healthier hair and skin.
Athletes have also been soaking hurt and tired body parts in icy water believing it would improve post-workout recovery, but that notion is challenged by a recent study. The latest research finds that cold-water immersion after a tough workout hinders muscle repair and growth.
What do we know for sure? You can try cold-water therapy in a variety of ways and it may have several benefits. However, some people should avoid ice baths altogether.
If a polar plunge is too drastic but you’re interested in cold-water therapy, you might try another method. Cold water immersion, ice bathing, ice swimming, contrast therapy, and cold showers have all shown possible health benefits. Clearly, it’s less drastic and risky to take a cold shower than jump in a frozen lake. As long as you expose your body to chilly water, you might get the rewards.
Types of Cold-Water Therapy
Cold water immersion, ice baths or ice swimming – Immersing the body for a maximum of 15 minutes in ice water that’s 50-59 degrees. You can dip in a tub of ice water or find a spot in nature, but don’t do it alone. Cold water shock can cause fainting and cardiac events.
Contrast water therapy or contrast baths – Alternating a body part or the whole body from hot water to cold water. Many people follow a sauna or steam room session with a cold bath of 50-59 degrees.
Cold showers or contrast showers – Taking cold showers, finishing a shower with very cold water, or alternating warm water with cold water in the shower. Typically, you end the cycle with cold water.
Since discomfort is one of the main disadvantages of cold-water therapy, you might try ending your shower with 30 seconds of cold water first. The frigid blast is shocking at first but easier to handle after a few days. You can also start with water that’s chilly, but not freezing. Add another 30 seconds or make the water colder when you’re ready.
Possible Benefits of Cold-Water Therapy
Warming to the idea of cold-water therapy? Here’s what you might get out of it:
Increased circulation – Cold-water therapy causes the submerged blood vessels to narrow (vasoconstriction) and then expand as you leave the cold water (vasodilation). The body responds by increasing blood flow to vital organs to keep them warm. This increased circulation may help your circulatory system be more efficient over time.
Boosted immunity – The cold-water shock can stimulate blood cells that fight infection (leukocytes), which seems to help people dodge viruses going around. In this study, people who ended showers with 30, 60, or 90 seconds of cold water for 90 days took about 30% fewer sick days than their coworkers in following months.
Improved mood – Because cold exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system and can cause the brain to produce more endorphins and noradrenaline (a neurotransmitter and hormone), cold-water therapy may improve your mood, and memory. For these reasons, it’s being studied as a potential treatment for depression. Worth noting, exercising outside in cold months can also have a mood-boosting effect.
Increased metabolism – Ice baths or swimming in frigid water increases metabolism as the body works to keep warm. Since higher metabolisms burn more calories, it’s possible this can lead to weight loss. That benefit is still being studied.
Faster workout recovery – Cold-water immersion reduces the perception of fatigue after a workout, so you may simply feel like your recovery is faster and pain less because the cold water can stimulate production of endorphins – your “happy hormones.”
While research had suggested that cold-water immersion helps stressed areas of the body recover post workout, the newest study mentioned above is conflicting.
Cold Shock Worth the Risk?
Overall, cold-water therapy might be worth a try as long as you reduce the risks. If you decide to take a shocking plunge, talk to your doctor first, especially if you have a heart condition or blood pressure issues. And, have a plan to warm up immediately after you get out.
While cold showering isn’t as risky, start with 30 seconds max. If you’re sick, pregnant, or have heart disease, skip ice bathing entirely and talk with your doctor before cold showering.