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Are you a fan of Wim Hof, aka “The Iceman?” Do you listen to Andrew Huberman’s wildly successful podcast? Have you heard about professional athletes, including Tom Brady, Cristian Ronaldo, and Usain Bolt, who use cold plunging, ice baths, cryotherapy, and other forms of cold therapy to help improve their muscle recovery and enhance athletic performance?
RELATED: Best Muscle Recovery Tools
Cold therapies, like the cold water plunge, have never been hotter than they are today. Folks, now more than ever, are learning about the potential benefits of cold plunging and adding it to their regular health and wellness routines.
We sat down with Dr. Michael Masi, DPT and Founder of Masi Fitness, to discuss what the cold plunge is, how to cold plunge, and the health benefits associated with cold plunging so you’ll have everything you need to try it out yourself!
What Is a Cold Plunge?
“Cold plunges involve immersing yourself into cold water to receive health benefits associated with exposure to cold temperatures,” explains Dr. Masi. “Generally, the immersion is brief, only a few minutes at a time, but the stimulus creates a physiological response and, in turn, results in potential health benefits.”
The cold plunge is just one method of administering cold therapy, with other methods including cryotherapy, ice baths, cold showers, and cold water swimming.
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What’s Happening During a Cold Plunge?
A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health1 describes what happens to your body during a cold plunge.
The cold exposure challenges the body to acclimate and produce heat to maintain a safe body temperature. Thermoregulation is achieved through various means, including:
- Thermogenesis through shivering
- Thermogenesis through brown adipose tissue activation
- Cold-induced vasodilation2, or increased blood flow
Basically, your body knows it needs to warm up in order to protect your vital organs and continue performing the metabolic processes, so you start shivering, which generates heat, your blood vessels fluctuate between dilation and constriction, improving the flow of warm blood towards the surface of the skin, and even your fat deposits, specifically “brown adipose tissue,” create heat as well.
How to Use a Cold Plunge
There are many ways to cold plunge. You could use a cold body of water or a bathtub filled with cold water and ice, or purchase one of the best cold plunge tubs for your home and set up your own cold plunge in a pinch.
Once your cold plunge tub is filled and chilled (water temperature between 53 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal), you’re ready to take that plunge!
- Enter the cold plunge tub. Briefly dunk your head for maximum effect.
- Sit for approximately 10 to 15 minutes, focusing on proper breathing (such as the Wim Hof Method).
- Exit the cold plunge and slowly warm yourself back up.
You’ll be tempted to jump into a hot shower and get toasty right away, but fight the urge! Warming up slowly and naturally avoids shocking the system further and maximizes the benefits of the cold plunge.
If you’re in a rush, wrap yourself in a warm, dry towel or sip a warm beverage.
Health Benefits of a Cold Plunge
You may have seen pro athletes—and folks on TikTok and social media—using cold plunges for their potential health benefits, but what exactly are those benefits?
May Help Boost Immune System
Clinical trials3 determined that cold water immersion produced “immunostimulating effects,” specifically an increased “leukocyte, granulocyte, and monocyte response.”
“Leukocytes, granulocytes, and monocytes are types of white blood cells that fight against infections and diseases,” says Dr. Masi, “so it is theorized that the augmented response of disease-fighting white blood cells due to cold water exposure has a positive effect on your immune system.”
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May Aid in Muscle Recovery
Numerous studies have been conducted over the years to determine if cold water immersion therapies like the cold plunge assist in muscle recovery.
Some studies4 have found it to be an effective practice, similar to active recovery, for reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and fatigue and encouraging muscle recovery, while other studies5 found the practice to be harmful to resistance training adaptations while providing no benefit to aerobic exercise performance.
RELATED: What Is Active Recovery?
A 2023 study published in Frontiers in Physiology6 sought to finally make heads or tails of the conflicting data, ultimately determining that “subjective sensations seemed to recover immediately [following cold water immersion], as did objective biochemical markers such as [creatine kinase] and lactate.”
These results indicate that, after a workout, a cold plunge might be just the thing to reduce muscle soreness and start the process of muscle recovery.
May Boost Mood
You probably won’t feel great the second you slip into a cold plunge, but could the practice yield mental health benefits? Studies show that they may.
A 2008 study published in Medical Hypotheses7 posited that cold water exposure, specifically by taking cold showers, could have a positive effect on depression. The study found that the cold water exposure activated the sympathetic nervous system, increasing the release of endorphins and noradrenaline to the brain and concluding that “cold hydrotherapy can relieve depressive symptoms rather effectively.”
A 2023 study in BMJ Military Health8 corroborated these findings, stating that “regular [cold water] exposure positively impacts mental status and physical composition, which may contribute to higher psychological resilience” and that “cold exposure as a part of military training is most likely to reduce anxiety among soldiers.”
May Help Improve Sleep
Improved sleep may also be among the positive effects of cold water immersion.
A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance9 found that as little as five minutes of cold water immersion following training sessions resulted in improvements in the perceived sleep quality and overall well-being in highly-trained swimmers.
How to Cold Plunge: FAQs
How do you cold plunge effectively?
Cold plunging is an exercise in “mind over matter.” Unless you’re already acclimated to the cold water, you’ll likely not be looking forward to the feelings of discomfort that are sure to ensue.
But it’s not only your mind that wants to work against the plunge; it’s your body, too. The moment you touch the frigid water, you will feel your heart rate accelerate, and you may feel short of breath and start hyperventilating.
“Cold plunges trigger your body to release norepinephrine, which activates your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response,” says Dr. Michael Masi, DPT, SCS, CSCS, CISSN, USAW-1, and owner of Masi Fitness. “Most beginners need to consciously calm themselves back down to a neutral state using breath control and meditation.”
Take deep breaths before you plunge, and as soon as you enter the water, slow that breathing down even more. If it helps, give yourself a pep talk, reminding yourself that you are totally okay. Letting out a yoga “Om” or humming may help as well.
Remember—if you feel the cold temperature is too intense, get out immediately and warm yourself up. And, of course, consult your doctor before undergoing cold therapies of any kind.
How long should you hold a cold plunge?
How often should you do a cold plunge?
The benefits of cold water immersion post-exercise are attractive, but if you’re in the gym five or six times a week, is it a good idea to cold plunge after every session? You can, but not at first.
“You should only cold plunge two or three times per week at first. You’ll still get cold plunge benefits from your time, but it will be more tolerable,” says Dr. Michael Masi, DPT, SCS, CSCS, CISSN, USAW-1, and owner of Masi Fitness. “As you get more comfortable with the stimulus provided by the cold plunge, you can gradually increase the frequency.”
What not to do after a cold plunge?
Although you may be tempted to get warmed up after the cold plunge, jumping directly into a hot shower or sauna is generally not recommended.
Instead, allow your body time to return to homeostasis naturally before forcing it to adapt to extreme temperature fluctuations again.
Should you dunk your head in a cold plunge?
When “chilling” in a cold plunge, you’ll most likely be submerged up to your neck, so the question is: to dunk or not to dunk?
“Dunking your head briefly will increase the hormonal response because you’re now also submerging the thyroid and parathyroid beneath the water,” says Dr. Michael Masi, DPT, SCS, CSCS, CISSN, USAW-1, and owner of Masi Fitness.
Don’t try to set a new record for the “longest amount of time holding your breath,” but a quick dunk will enhance the effects of your cold plunge and make it more worthwhile.
1. Esperland D, de Weerd L, Mercer JB. Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate. Int J Circumpolar Health. 2022;81(1):2111789. doi:10.1080/22423982.2022.2111789
2. Flouris AD, Westwood DA, Mekjavic IB, Cheung SS. Effect of body temperature on cold induced vasodilation. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2008;104(3):491-499. doi:10.1007/s00421-008-0798-3
3. Brenner IK, Castellani JW, Gabaree C, et al. Immune changes in humans during cold exposure: effects of prior heating and exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1999;87(2):699-710. doi:10.1152/jappl.1918.104.22.1689
4. Peake JM, Roberts LA, Figueiredo VC, et al. The effects of cold water immersion and active recovery on inflammation and cell stress responses in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise. J Physiol. 2017;595(3):695-711. doi:10.1113/JP272881
5. Malta ES, Dutra YM, Broatch JR, Bishop DJ, Zagatto AM. The Effects of Regular Cold-Water Immersion Use on Training-Induced Changes in Strength and Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2021;51(1):161-174. doi:10.1007/s40279-020-01362-0
6. Xiao F, Kabachkova AV, Jiao L, Zhao H, Kapilevich LV. Effects of cold water immersion after exercise on fatigue recovery and exercise performance–meta analysis. Front Physiol. 2023;14:1006512. Published 2023 Jan 20. doi:10.3389/fphys.2023.1006512
7. Shevchuk NA. Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Med Hypotheses. 2008;70(5):995-1001. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2007.04.052
8. Néma J, Zdara J, Lašák P, et al. Impact of cold exposure on life satisfaction and physical composition of soldiers [published online ahead of print, 2023 Jan 4]. BMJ Mil Health. 2023;e002237. doi:10.1136/military-2022-002237
9. Al Haddad H, Parouty J, Buchheit M. Effect of daily cold water immersion on heart rate variability and subjective ratings of well-being in highly trained swimmers. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2012;7(1):33-38. doi:10.1123/ijspp.7.1.33
10. Machado AF, Ferreira PH, Micheletti JK, de Almeida AC, Lemes ÍR, Vanderlei FM, Netto Junior J, Pastre CM. Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Apr;46(4):503-14. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0431-7. PMID: 26581833; PMCID: PMC4802003.
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