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You’ve probably heard the buzz about cold water exposure when it comes to overall health and wellness. It may seem like every other influencer on your social media feed is submerged in an ice bath or literally chopping away at a frozen lake preparing for a chilly plunge.
While ice bath benefits might be a hot topic for water cooler chats, is it something that really stands up to science? And do the benefits outweigh the discomfort of being downright cold?
Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. For health advice, contact a licensed healthcare provider.
Health Benefits of Ice Baths
When you voluntarily expose your entire body to an ice bath, your body has a natural response system to keep your core temperature regulated. In the sections below we cover what happens when you’re exposed to cold temperatures and cold bath benefits.
What Happens During Cold Water Immersion?
In a 2022 review published by the International Journal of Circumpolar Health1, researchers cover the four main physiological adaptations that occur when you’re voluntarily exposed to cold water.
Firstly, researchers point out that your body starts the process of thermoregulation, which basically means that while exposed to cold temperatures, your body adjusts to the environment and maintains the appropriate temperature in your organs and brain. While trying to regulate heat to important parts, your body responds by constricting blood flow to the skin and dilating blood vessels that serve your vital organs.
Next, when your body temperature lowers and can’t regulate the natural blood flow responses, the body responds with shivering as a way to increase your body’s core temperature. The act of shivering thermogenesis allows your body to generate extra heat.
There is also a response called nonshivering thermogenesis. The review sheds light on how the response to cold stress increases blood flow to brown adipose tissue (BAT), which indicates a physiological response of heat generation rather than the insulative blood flow reduction related to white adipose tissue. All this to say, it could be related to reducing brown fat tissues and reducing overall body fat—but we’ll get more into that later.
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And lastly, cold shock response is possible when your core temperature drops too low. Cold shock can onset rapid heart rate, gasping, uncontrollable hyperventilation, and hypertension. While cold exposure is subjective to what each person can tolerate, it’s worth noting cold shock is possible with long exposure or ultra cold water temperatures.
Now that we’ve established the groundwork for what happens to your body during cold water exposure, let’s dive into the health benefits associated with a nice cold plunge. That said, it’s worth noting that there is still much more to be discovered when it comes to the body’s response to ice baths. For now, researchers acknowledge there are still a lot of unknowns.
Potential to Reduce Pain and Inflammation
Using a cold compress or pack of frozen peas to reduce pain from a fall or injury is common practice. While icing can help reduce inflammation and pain when it comes to acute injury, what about using that approach for the entire body?
Well, in one 2010 randomized control trial published by Physical Therapy2, researchers found that cold water immersion reduced sensory nerve conduction velocity—and did so more than ice massages or localized ice packs. In other words, being submerged in chilly ice bath temperatures helped reduce nerve sensation and pain.
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Additionally, a report published by the Journal of Pain3 found that cold baths paired with hyperventilatory breathing exercises and meditation (aka the Wim Hof method, which we’ll dive into a bit later) reduced the feeling of pain from an electrical stimulus.
Potential to Aid Muscle Recovery and Sore Muscles
Although high-level and professional athletes might partake in cryotherapy and cold immersion techniques, is there enough evidence to support you investing in an at-home ice bath setup?
If the potential benefits of a post-training session ice bath have you itching to take the plunge into cold water, let it be known there is evidence to support the fact folks have the perception of less muscle soreness; however, the research doesn’t provide a whole lot of evidence that muscle recovery actually improves from cold water after intense workouts.
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In a randomized control trial published by the European Journal of Applied Physiology4, researchers found limited evidence that cold water immersion therapy works for reducing muscle soreness after intense training. However, they did find that there were beneficial effects on the perceptions of pain, soreness, and recovery in test subjects.
Additionally, one systematic review published in the Frontiers in Physiology5 found that massage is referred to as the most effective method to reduce inflammation from delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). However, it’s also noted that cold water immersion was another powerful tool to reduce soreness and the perception of muscle soreness.
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That said, a review from Sports Medicine 6 found that cold water immersion was more helpful for reducing muscle soreness after high-intensity exercise and not as effective with eccentric-style strength training.
Dr. Michael Masi, DPT, SCS, CSCS, CISSN, USAW-1, and GGR expert panelist says ice baths aren’t the solution for everyone “In reality, inflammation is a natural response to working out,” says Masi. “This natural response can aid muscle growth and increased muscle mass.”
That said, Masi suggests there may be more ice bath benefits for athletes, especially for ones with back-to-back training, races, or games and need to reduce soreness and recover quickly.
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Potential Weight Loss Ice Bath Benefits
As mentioned earlier, the body can respond to cold exposure with nonshivering thermogenesis, which stimulates blood flow to BAT (aka brown adipose tissue).
One 2019 study published by Biology (Basel)7 found that cold exposure can increase energy activity and overall expenditure in BAT. The study also reveals that cold exposure can help regulate glucose levels, insulin sensitivity, and lipid metabolism—all of which are related to weight loss or the ability to maintain a healthy weight.
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Potential to Provide Immune System Support
If this is your first time hearing of the Wim Hof Method, it it all started with a Dutch guy named Wim Hof (aka The Iceman) who became popular for withstanding extreme temperatures and hiking up snowy mountains wearing nothing but shorts by using a blend of meditation techniques and hyperventilation breathing exercises to regulate his body temperature.
Since the initial hype, The Iceman has gone on to participate in research and introduce others to his system of slowly introducing the body to cold temperatures (essentially taking cold showers and working your way to whole-body immersion).
Among the different paths that have been studied in relation to the Wim Hof Method, a 2014 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences8 found that the combination of cold exposure, breathing exercises, and meditation together can activate the sympathetic nervous system and can provide an epinephrine (aka adrenaline) release that suppresses your body’s natural immune response to fight infections.
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While it’s hard to say ice-cold water alone will provide the same immunity boost, the Wim Hof Method certainly seems to have a winning combination of cold temperatures, breathwork, and mental focus.
Potential for Mental Health Benefits and Stress Management
While folks claim the mental toughness of getting into cold water is what can increase your mental health and tackle the woes of the day, a clinical trial from the European Journal of Applied Physiology9 found that cold water therapy changes how we feel because it increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Not only that, this trial also found that it increased heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure, too.
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Additionally, another trial published by the Biological Research for Nursing10 found that stress, anxiety, and depression reduced after two weeks of regular cold immersions, and test subjects reported a decrease in depression by the fourth week.
How to Make an Ice Bath
Are you pumped on the potential ice bath benefits and ready to take the plunge? Well, you have a few options. You can dip into the nearest body of cold water, but you won’t be able to control the air temperature or water temperature. For a more controlled (and potentially more comfortable) experience, check out our how to cold plunge guide for step-by-step directions.
You’ll be able to use our guidelines with a bathtub filled with cold water, a DIY stock tank cold plunge, or in one of the best cold plunge tubs on the market.
Ice Bath Benefits: Final Thoughts
Cold therapy can come in the form of ice packs, cryotherapy, ice-cold water, and even cold showers. While some folks claim ice baths are the best active recovery after intense workouts, research indicates it’s more likely to reduce the feeling and your perception of pain and soreness.
That said, the benefits of ice baths are still plenty. You can use cold therapy to reduce stress and pain and can also combine ice baths with breathwork and meditation to help support your immune system.
Ice Bath Benefits FAQ
Are ice baths good for you?
While more definitive evidence is needed for muscle recovery and muscle soreness, there are several other health benefits gained from ice baths, including better mental health, reduced pain and inflammation, and the potential for immune system support combined with breathwork and meditation.
How long should you ice bath for?
The amount of time spent in an ice bath will be subjective, and more than likely, you’ll be able to endure more time submerged in ice-cold water with practice. Start with just a few minutes at a time to avoid cold shock. Most studies we read had subjects in cold water for less than 20 minutes.
What are the disadvantages of ice baths?
The biggest disadvantage of an ice bath is the potential for cold shock. Plus, if you’re outdoors and submerging in cold water, the risks of hypothermia and frostbite increase. Additionally, folks with cardiovascular disease should consult a doctor before trying an ice bath for the first time due to the short-term changes in blood flow while exposed to cold water.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.
- 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
- Herrera, E., et al. (2010). Motor and sensory nerve conduction are affected differently by ice pack, ice massage, and cold water immersion. Physical Therapy.
- Zwaag J, Timmerman H, Pickkers P, Kox M. Modulation of Pain Sensitivity by a Hyperventilatory Breathing Exercise and Cold Exposure Training. J Pain Res. 2023;16:1979-1991. doi.org/10.2147/JPR.S400408
- Stanley J, Buchheit M, Peake JM. The effect of post-exercise hydrotherapy on subsequent exercise performance and heart rate variability. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012;112(3):951-961. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2052-7
- Dupuy O, Douzi W, Theurot D, Bosquet L, Dugué B. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Front Physiol. 2018;9:403. Published 2018 Apr 26. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
- Moore, E., Fuller, J.T., Buckley, J.D. et al. Impact of Cold-Water Immersion Compared with Passive Recovery Following a Single Bout of Strenuous Exercise on Athletic Performance in Physically Active Participants: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis and Meta-regression. Sports Med 52, 1667–1688 (2022).
- Peres Valgas da Silva C, Hernández-Saavedra D, White JD, Stanford KI. Cold and Exercise: Therapeutic Tools to Activate Brown Adipose Tissue and Combat Obesity. Biology (Basel). 2019;8(1):9. Published 2019 Feb 12. doi:10.3390/biology8010009
- Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(20):7379-7384. doi:10.1073/pnas.1322174111
- Srámek P, Simecková M, Janský L, Savlíková J, Vybíral S. Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2000;81(5):436-442. doi:10.1007/s004210050065
- Kurniasari MD, Monsen KA, Weng SF, Yang CY, Tsai HT. Cold Water Immersion Directly and Mediated by Alleviated Pain to Promote Quality of Life in Indonesian with Gout Arthritis: A Community-based Randomized Controlled Trial. Biol Res Nurs. 2022;24(2):245-258. doi:10.1177/10998004211063547
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