Are Ice Baths Beneficial?
Taking ice baths, also known as cold water immersion (CWI), cold water therapy or cryotherapy, a practice that has existed since time immemorial, has got increasingly popular over the last few years, largely by Wim Hoff’s influence.
It is worth noting that Wim Hof has become famous for his method of combining cold water immersion with breathwork techniques. If you’d like a deeper education on the history of cold therapy you can find out a lot about that here
People with varying physical and mental illnesses and some with physical injuries, have seen life changing results from using cold water. When we bathe in ice, the cold water causes our blood vessels to constrict which means less blood can pass through, slowing blood flow. This has its benefits for short periods after which it can become dangerous.
The benefits of ice baths
Ice baths can help your fitness regime
Ice baths aid recovery after a workout. Constricted blood vessels and slower blood flow have the effect of reducing inflammation in the body and in sore muscles! There is some evidence to suggest that athletes who use cold water immersion experience less muscle soreness later on, also known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). So, after a particularly challenging workout, it may be beneficial for you to take an icy bath. Even before the present trend of cold water immersion ice baths have been popular with athletes and runners as a therapeutic means of relaxing muscles after training. If you’d like to find out more about DOMS, we have a post on it here .
Ice baths increase blood circulation
The shock of climbing into cold water leads our bodies to tell our brain it needs more blood. This increases heart rate, in turn improving blood circulation. This does not only help reduce inflammation but also helps flush toxins out the body (as blood is doing that anyway, so increased circulation does that more effectively). One of the benefits of increased blood circulation is a lovely glow on our skin.
Ice baths reduce body temperature
This is caused by the constricted blood vessels. Sometimes ice baths are used strategically for this purpose for athletes who need to cool down quickly, such as after a race or training session. Interestingly, although we feel cooler after a cold plunge as a result of the decreased blood flow to the skin, this actually causes our core to get warmer after the cold water immersion because we aren’t losing that heat through skin blood flow. So, cold water immersion can be a lot more uncomfortable but even more beneficial in cold environments to help keep you warm! You can find out more about this here.
Cold water immersion is may be good for your mental health
By being forced to be completely present and focused under the pressure of icy water, ice baths serve as a powerful meditation of sorts and may be extremely beneficial for mental health. It’s common to struggle to quiet the mind in meditation but an ice bath makes it extremely easy as you have no choice but to focus on the present moment and your breathe. Your body goes into survival mode in a sense and brings you completely into the now moment. If mental health is a key motivator for your wellness journey, you can also check out our post on meditation as a wellness practice here.
Ice baths stimulate your metabolism
Everything the body does that keeps as alive requires energy and thus calories. This includes maintaining our core body temperature. So, the body working hard to maintain core body temperature while you are immersed in the cold water burns calories and stimulates the metabolism! This is one of the reasons you feel so good after cold water immersion.
Ice baths are good for (most of) you
Ice baths are dangerous if not taken with proper precaution even if you have no health conditions. Please take proper precaution including never taking an ice bath alone but with someone else who is not bathing in ice at the same time as you.
Certainly if you have any medical issues that might affect you having an ice bath you want to discuss with a medical professional first. Those with high blood pressure, any blood circulation or any heart problems, open wounds or pregnancy are at a higher risk. If in doubt, consult with your doctor before you try.
Here are some of the risks of taking ice baths: frostbite, heart attack, hypothermia, reduced muscle growth (there is evidence to suggest ice baths even stunt muscle growth) and infection in open wounds. You can find out more about why ice baths are not for everyone and certainly not necessary here.
How to take an ice bath
The easiest way to take an ice bath is to fill your bath with cold water and then add ice. If you do not have a bathtub, you can also use a very big bucket! Have a nice fluffy towel nearby to get straight into when you’re done and keep a timer nearby to make sure you don’t exceed a safe time limit. As an extra safety measure, do not do this alone. There is a small risk of losing consciousness especially if you’ve never done this before so ideally you would not do this alone but with someone you trust to keep an eye on you.
You should sit in an ice bath for up to 15 minutes. Elizabeth Gardner, MD, Yale Medicine sports medicine doctor, recommends a temperature of 10-15 degrees Celsius. Constricted blood vessels within a short period of time may have its health benefits for most of us but after an extended period of time it can become dangerous for anybody. So, don’t overdo it. Start small and work your way up to 15 minutes. You could start with 2 to 3 minutes for example. It will get easier (and safer) over time.
You can take an ice bath daily. Some people even take one twice a day. You could have one once a day, once a week, or even once a month. Even one session has its benefits. Just give it a try and you’ll likely know intuitively how often it would be good for you to do it as you get started. If you can, 2 or 3 times a week would likely have really amazing benefits for your physical and mental health.
Ice baths have a number of health benefits including reducing recovery time after training, improving mental health and increasing blood circulation in general. If you have no contraindicating health conditions ice baths or cold water therapy could be highly beneficial for you. It could be worth just trying it and seeing how you feel! Remember to start small, build your way up, make sure you’re being watched over by someone you trust and do not exceed 15 minutes (at least without professional and medical supervision).
Just a note for my wellness fanatics out there — there are countless wellness tools and trends many of which are indeed highly beneficial. It’s easy to get excited about them all but we must remember the train of wellbeing trends never ends and even if we had not a single other responsibility than our wellbeing (which of course we all do) we still wouldn’t have enough time to cover them all. Your peace and relaxation gets to come first.
My point is that an attempt to improve our wellness can evolve into something stressful and complicated — the opposite of what it’s meant to be. Get quiet with yourself and ask yourself what you really want. It’s better to do fewer things and do them properly. I used to try to include every single new thing I heard of into my life somehow and my wellness rituals became a part time job of its own. Now, I’ve stripped it back to the basics: movement, meditation and journaling. Everything else is a fun extra without any pressure. So, ice baths and all other wellness trends alike, are great and can be highly beneficial, but take a moment to ask why you want to do it, if you can fit it in right now and if so how incorporating it into your life might look. No pressure!
Written By Bea: Female fitness expert at MotivatePT – Reps Level 3 Qualified / Pre & Post Natal