The thought of submerging yourself in a tub of ice-cold water may induce a shiver in your soul, but research suggests that cold exposure, specifically through an ice bath, has many benefits for recovery and overall health. Ice bath benefits include improved immunity, reduced post-workout soreness and pain, improved mental well-being, and more. In this post, I’ll explore the cool science of cold exposure and the benefits of ice bathing. I’ll also discuss how you can safely implement ice baths into your health and self-care routine. So whether you’re looking to improve performance or want a natural health boost, this post will provide the information you need to make the most of your ice bath.
- Deliberate Cold Exposure
- Ice Bath Benefits
- Ice Bath FAQ
Deliberate Cold Exposure
What is Deliberate Cold Exposure?
Deliberate Cold Exposure involves subjecting your body to cold temperatures to improve your physical and mental health.
You can do this in various ways, each with its price tag, pros, and cons:
- Cold Showers
- Whole Body Cryotherapy: this involves standing in a cryotherapy chamber that circulates cold air around your body. This air can be as cold as -110°.
- Cold Water Immersion: this is the type of cold exposure you’re doing when you use an ice bath. It involves submerging your body up to the neck in cold water.
Deliberate vs Non-Deliberate Cold Exposure
Before we talk about the benefits of Deliberate Cold Exposure (DCE) using Cold Water Immersion, I must stress the importance of the word deliberate. There is increasing evidence to show that how we think about a stressful event can significantly alter the effect of that stress on our minds and bodies (1).
When we do Deliberate Cold Exposure (DCE), we are choosing to get uncomfortable, believing it will positively affect our physical and mental health. This intentional approach to discomfort taps into the phenomenon of mindset.
The phenomenon is nicely summarised by Dr Alia Crum, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, as follows:
The mindset phenomenon may sound a little like pseudoscience but there is good science behind it. For example, one study examined the effect of telling a group of cleaners that their work counted as exercise. At the end of the study, the cleaners who thought they were doing meaningful exercise lost body fat and lowered their BMI compared to the control group (2).
This mindset phenomenon is why it’s important to understand the science behind ice bathing. When you take an ice bath with the knowledge that it will boost your immune system or increase your metabolism, you are more likely to see these effects come true.
And on the flip side, this phenomenon also (partly) explains why, unfortunately, getting caught in a flash of winter rain won’t afford you the same health benefits as an ice bath!
How To Do Cold Water Immersion
The best thing about Cold Water Immersion (CWI) is that it’s powerful but simple. All you have to do is submerge yourself to the neck in waters at or below a temperature of 68°F (20°C). Then sit back and chill.
Over time, as you get used to the cold, you can increase the challenge by reducing the temperature or increasing the length of your cold water session.
As for where you do cold immersion, that’s up to you. Some enjoy the freedom of the outdoors and turn to outdoor swimming in lakes, rivers, or even open-water bodies in parks. These work well, but please ensure these waters are safe, clean, and free from undercurrents.
The downside to open-water swimming is that you cannot control the temperature, and these open waters are often too cold for beginners.
My general recommendation, especially to beginners, is to start with an ice bathtub.
Ice Bath Benefits
Cold results in positive health change through its function as a form of hormesis. Hormesis is the field of science that studies how moderate doses of bodily stressors, hormetic stressors, can result in positive health benefits.
Hormetic stresses increase cell functions and strengthen your body’s signaling pathways. Just like a muscle grows in response to lifting heavy weights, so too do your body systems become more robust and efficient when exposed to hormetic stress. FYI exercise is a form of hormetic stress!
A crucial part of hormesis is ensuring the stress isn’t too great. If the hormetic stress is too great, your body will be unable to cope and at risk of harm. Returning to the exercise analogy, it’s the same as attempting to lift a weight that’s too heavy. At best, you will fail and see no benefit. At worst, you risk injury.
This is why taking it slow and knowing your limits is essential. A good hormetic stressor should hit that sweet spot of stress. Not too little but not too much (4).
So now that you understand what cold water recovery is and how it works, let’s dive into the benefits.
Benefits of Ice Baths #1: Post-Workout Muscle Soreness
Ice baths have long been a mainstay in the health routines of athletes and martial artists due to their effectiveness in reducing post-exercise soreness and improving physical recovery (5).
Cold water constricts blood vessels and causes a reduction in blood flow. Reduced blood flow means fewer inflammatory molecules are delivered to muscles and joints. Less inflammatory molecules mean less pain, fatigue, and soreness.
A 2022 meta-analysis examined the combined results of fifty-two studies to see if cold water immersion affects post-workout recovery. The study concluded that post-workout cold water immersion improved muscular power, reduced delayed muscle soreness, and improved how recovered someone felt. The study also found that post-workout cold water immersion reduced blood levels of Creatinine kinase (CK), an enzyme muscles release when they break down (6). This is evidence that an ice bath can reduce muscle breakdown at the cellular level.
Benefits of Ice Baths #2: Immune System
If you’re looking for a quick, easy, and natural way to boost your immune system, cold water immersion with an ice bath may be what you need.
One study looked at the effect of 5-10 minute weekly sessions of cold water swimming on blood antioxidant levels. Not only did the cold water swimmers have higher blood antioxidants than non-swimmers, but they also increased their antioxidant levels throughout the study (7).
These findings are significant as antioxidants are essential fighting against Radical Oxygen Species (ROS), which can damage your cells and DNA.
The theory behind how ice baths increase our antioxidant levels is that cold acts as a hormetic stress and causes the production of these ROS. In response, your body kicks its antioxidant factory into overdrive. Once you get out of the ice bath, the ROS molecules naturally go down. In contrast, the antioxidants hang around for a while and strengthen your innate immune system.
Benefits of Ice Baths #3: Metabolism & Fat Burn
One of the lesser-known benefits of an ice bath is its ability to boost metabolism.
One study showed that as little as 11 minutes per week of cold immersion, divided between a few sessions, can significantly increase your metabolism (8). How can so little time have such an effect on your metabolism? Science tells us that cold stimulates your body to convert yellow fat to brown fat (9).
Yellow fat is primarily for storing energy and is that stubborn fat you can’t seem to get rid of. In comparison, brown fat is rich in mitochondria, the energy-burning factories within your cells. Because of how many mitochondria brown fat cells have, they are very metabolically active and burn many more calories than yellow fat. This process of brown fat burning calories is known as fat thermogenesis.
Ice baths increase the conversion of yellow fat to brown fat and stimulate brown fat to burn more calories. The result is that you increase your resting metabolic rate and burn more calories even when not exercising.
Another study by P. Šrámek et al. showed how a more moderate but longer cold plunge session could massively increase metabolism. In this study, participants did one hour of cold bathing at a temperature of 57.2°F (14°C). Incredibly, study participants showed a 350% increase in their metabolic rate (10). That’s a lot of fat burning!
P.S. If you want to maximize fat burn, pair your ice bath with an infrared sauna and alternate between hot and cold therapy.
Benefits of Ice Baths #4: Focus and Alertness
If you’ve ever taken an ice bath or jumped into a cold body of water, you’ll know what a shock to your system it is. It’s almost impossible for your mind to be on anything other than high alert.
Cold has this effect because it causes large releases of the catecholamines Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, and Dopamine. Catecholamines are chemicals used by nerve cells to send signals aka neurotransmitters. Specifically, they are neurotransmitters used to signal in your sympathetic nervous system, or as it’s commonly known, your fight or flight response.
P. Šrámek et al. found over 500% increases in noradrenaline following a one-hour cold bath at 57.2°F (14°C). Huge spikes in noradrenaline such as these will cause your heart to beat faster and more blood to flow to the brain, ultimately making you feel more awake and increasing your focus.
You may be concerned that such large increases in sympathetic activity may make you feel stressed. However, the same study found no significant increases in Cortisol, the so-called ‘stress hormone’. This means taking an ice bath can provide all the benefits of a flight-or-flight response, like increased focus and alertness, without any of the stress!
Try taking an ice bath early in the day to take advantage of this effect. You’ll feel awake and ready to take on the day.
Benefits of Ice Baths #5: Feel Good Mood
Although sitting in an ice bath is unpleasant, many people feel amazing afterward. The reason for this is cold water immersion causes massive increases in dopamine. P. Šrámek et al. found an over 350% increase in dopamine following a one-hour cold bath at 57.2°F (14°C).
Dopamine is often mistakenly thought of as the molecule of pleasure. In reality, it is the molecule of motivation and reward. When dopamine spikes in your brain, you will feel happier, calmer, and more content.
Further, dopamine will motivate you to repeat the action that stimulates its release. This is why you not only feel great after an ice bath but may even find yourself looking forward to your next chilly dip.
So don’t worry; you’re not a glutton for punishment. It’s just dopamine doing its thing!
Ice Bath FAQ
Who should not use ice baths?
Before starting an ice bath routine, I recommend you consult your medical doctor, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions.
You should be especially cautious using an ice bath if you:
- are pregnant
- have heart or circulation issues
- have open wounds
- have a low tolerance for cold
- have previously been hypothermic
How can I get started with ice bathing?
The easiest and lowest-cost option for getting started with cold water immersion is to find a safe and clean area for open water swimming, such as a lake or open-air pool.
But if you want to enjoy an ice bath at home, the cheapest option is to fill your bathtub with cold water and top it up with ice to get the desired temperature.
If you have no tub, prefer a dedicated space to cold plunge, or want an intelligent setup that can cool and clean itself; then I recommend getting an ice bathtub. An ice bathtub is a product specifically designed to help you do cold water immersion at home and is the most popular way of doing cold therapy. Check out my top picks to suit every space, price, and style.
How cold should the water be?
If you’re a beginner to ice baths, I recommend starting at a mildly cold temperature and slowly dropping the temperature over time. As with any new health practice, the best approach is caution.
Even if you are an experienced cold plunger, I do not recommend most people plunge into waters below 39°F (4°C) as there is a significant risk of hypothermia.
How long should you ice bath for?
Unless trained and experienced, limit your sessions to 10 minutes, and always observe the 4 stages of cold.
How often should do an ice bath?
Studies show that roughly 10-15 minutes per week, divided into 2-3 sessions, is enough for most people.
Should I take an ice bath every day?
It’s unlikely that daily ice baths will result in much more health gains compared to doing it a few times a week. The more ice baths you take, the cold-adapted your body becomes, and the less additional benefit you get from each extra session.
So while you could squeeze out some extra health benefits by taking an ice bath daily, you have to weigh whether those benefits are worth the time and effort.
Studies show that roughly 10-15 minutes total per week, divided between two to three ice bath sessions, is enough to see significant health benefits.