While it’s quite common for athletes to partake in a post-workout ice bath, the trend of submerging your body in extremely cold water has also gained popularity among celebrities as of late. Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Brooke Shields are among the famous individuals who have tried variations of this teeth-chattering practice. Brie Larson even includes cold showers as one of her preferred methods for calming down!
As you browse through TikTok and Instagram, you may notice that #coldplunges are currently trending. But is enduring such frigid temperatures truly worth it? And what are the actual benefits? In the following sections, experts address these questions and provide insight into the alleged advantages of cold plunges.
What Is a Cold Plunge, Exactly?
Whether it occurs in an outdoor tub or entails immersing oneself in a sea of ice cubes, a cold plunge essentially involves submerging your body in cold water with temperatures typically at or below 50°F. Although it has gained significant attention lately (with the corresponding hashtag accumulating millions of views on TikTok), this concept is far from new. In fact, the cold plunge is considered an ancient practice according to Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of cold plunges, Greek physician Hippocrates purportedly believed that they could alleviate fatigue, and doctors in the 1700s recommended them for treating various ailments such as fever.
More recently, people like Wim Hof, a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete, have popularized cold plunges. Hof claims that combining cold plunges with specific breathing and meditation techniques can help reduce anxiety and stress. He is such a firm believer in the therapeutic potential of immersing oneself in freezing water that he has developed the Wim Hof Method. This technique combines breathing exercises, mindset training, and exposure to cold water, which, when practiced consistently, can enhance one’s mental well-being, as stated on the method’s official website.
But frigid immersions, in and of themselves, have been connected to physical and mental health advantages. And on that remark…
Frigid Immersion Advantages
“There are so many advantages to frigid immersions for your entire system,” states Joseph Ciotola, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center who has trained with Hof. “I do it every day.”
May Enhance Circulation
To start with, the tactic might assist in enhancing your circulation “particularly when you change hot and cold because it enhances the flexibility of your blood vessels,” states Dr. Ciotola. And the more adaptable your blood vessels, the better they’re able to regulate your blood pressure and maintain good heart health.
Diminishes Muscle and Joint Inflammation
Frigid water immersion can also have anti-inflammatory effects on your muscles and joints, which can decrease your risk of injury and pain, he adds. In fact, research suggests that exposure to cold H2O decreases skin, core, and muscle temperatures. This can lead to vasoconstriction (aka narrowing of blood vessels), which, in turn, decreases inflammation from muscle damage, according to a 2006 investigation. What’s more, lower tissue temps can cause a reduction in nerve conduction properties and a decrease in muscle spasms and pain.
May Alleviate Pain Associated With Chronic Illness
That being said, there isn’t a ton of robust research to directly support the advantages of frigid immersions, states Tracy Zaslow, M.D., M.D., a primary care sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles and a team physician for Angel City Football Club. Still, one small investigation from 2004 found that individuals who suffered from health issues, such as fibromyalgia (a chronic condition that causes pain and tenderness throughout the body) and asthma (chronic lung disease that affects the airways in the lungs), reported experiencing less pain after engaging in cold water swimming over a four-month period
Meanwhile, investigation from 2012 and 2016 indicates that frigid water submersion (as opposed to inactive recuperation) subsequent to a exercise can result in reduced muscle tenderness.
May Reduce Strain
The psychological benefits of cold plunges, however, are less evident — from a scientific perspective, at least. While “more research is needed in this area, there is some preliminary data supporting its mental health advantages,” states Gallagher. For instance, a 2021 study of individuals ranging from 19 to 88 years old discovered that those who swam in the ocean during winter reported lower stress levels and increased feelings of well-being compared to those who did not enter the water.
May Enhance Vigor, Temperament, and Retention
Furthermore, another study conducted on winter swimmers found that individuals who followed this practice experienced reductions in self-reported stress, fatigue, memory problems, and negative mood as they swam more frequently. Additionally, after a period of four months, the swimmers reported having more energy and being more physically active compared to those who did not swim. However, there is a caveat: Swimming and exercise alone have been associated with pain reduction and improvements in mental health, making it difficult to isolate cold water immersion as the sole cause, notes Dr. Zaslow. “Even swimming in warm water can produce some of these effects,” she explains. “We cannot dismiss that.”
While the connection between cold water immersion and improved mental health is not fully understood, some research suggests that immersing oneself in icy water can trigger the release of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol). This could potentially explain the post-cold plunge boost in energy. “Anecdotally, it is invigorating,” says Gallagher. “It challenges individuals to see what they can handle.”
May Mitigate Sensations of Unease and Melancholy
According to Gallagher, people can “experience significant improvement afterward,” and this may help alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression. Dr. Ciotola also agrees, adding that “an endorphin release occurs when you emerge from the water.” In fact, research has shown that cold water swimming increases the concentration of norepinephrine (which can enhance energy and alertness) and endorphin (which can elevate mood). These effects could potentially aid in alleviating depression, as indicated by a 2020 scientific review.
Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that there is also “a lot to be said for the placebo effect,” states Gallagher. “If you perceive that it is helping, it is helping.”
How to Incorporate Cold Plunges Into Your Wellness Routine
If you are interested in trying a cold plunge, there are a few tips worth remembering.
Before you even set foot into the frigid waters, practice a few respiratory exercises to soothe your body and mind, recommends Lauren Schramm, the creator and primary trainer of mvmt collective, an international Nike instructor, and an ice bath coach. “Once you immerse yourself in the tub, your breath becomes your sole tool to alleviate stress,” she elucidates.
By practicing breathwork before the immersion, you’ll be able to quickly recall and go through the same comforting techniques while you’re dealing with the initial shock of the cold, she adds. Schramm’s preferred method? Box breathing, which involves inhaling for a four-count, holding the inhale for the same duration, exhaling for a count of four, and then holding the exhale for the same duration.
Wardrobe: Nike Hydralock Fusion One Piece Swimsuit.
Once you’re prepared to plunge in, consider starting with a 30- to 60-second cold shower, a readily available alternative that may offer similar advantages and allows you to warm up quickly afterward, says Schramm. For an actual cold plunge, start small and gradually increase the intensity. That means beginning with a tub of H2O that’s about 50° F or lower, says Dr. Zaslow. You should also aim to immerse yourself — either a specific body part that’s particularly sore or your whole body up to your chin — for two minutes and eventually work your way up to 10 minutes, if you can tolerate it, suggests Dr. Ciotola. “I personally practice three rounds of three minutes every one to two weeks and find that to be great for my mental and emotional well-being,” adds Schramm.
So Should You Try a Cold Plunge?
That’s up for you — and your physician — to decide. “Cold water affects your blood pressure, heart rate, and circulation, and it can cause cardiac stress,” says Dr. Zaslow. “In rare instances, it has provoked cardiac arrest. Individuals with underlying health conditions are particularly at risk for this.”
Even if your doctor does give you the green light, “just keep in mind, though, that nothing is a panacea, so it should be a supplementary intervention to a healthy lifestyle,” adds Gallagher. (Up next: How Float Therapy Can Benefit Your Mind and Body)
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