Taking the occasional ice bath can do wonders for your mental and physical health.
From reducing inflammation to helping you de-stress, ice baths are worth a try. Don’t be intimidated by the cold — the temperature shock is the best part of it!
Whether you’re a professional athlete or a gym rat, ice baths have long been an effective therapeutic tool. The thought of sinking into a frigid tub may not sound alluring to you, but the benefits definitely outweigh the discomfort.
In this article, we’ll explore the beauty of ice baths and talk about:
- How to take an ice bath
- Potential ice bath benefits
- When and why to take an ice bath, and how long it should last
- Other safety tips and common questions about the activity.
Let’s dip our toes in!
What Are the Benefits of an Ice Bath?
Ice baths are a tool commonly used by professional athletes to soothe their muscles. But anyone can make an ice bath and achieve the same cold therapy experience and benefits at home?
Curious about what these are?
Here are the most recognized benefits of taking ice baths:
1. Relieves Sore Muscles
When your muscles are sore after a sports game, workout, or moving furniture, they may feel as if they’re throbbing.
Taking an ice bath encourages your blood vessels to constrict, which results in slowing down blood flow, and reducing pain and soreness.
2. Speeds up Physical Recovery
Taking an ice bath can flush out lactic acid, a waste product that builds up in the body. When you have too much lactic acid, you may feel fatigued and struggle to recover from workouts.
Because ice baths help to clear this acid, they can make a huge difference in your energy and physical recovery time.
However, keep in mind that the time frame for maximum efficacy occurs in a 10 to 15 minute ice bath after your workout.
3. Increases Energy Levels
An ice bath physically energizes you on account of the temperature shock. You’ll feel invigorated in the moment, and this boost may also extend to other areas of your life!
We’re still building evidence to support the “energizing” theory beyond a survey where winter swimmers reported feeling more “energetic, active, and brisk” than those who hadn’t gone in the water.
Ice baths may be a placebo — but this hasn’t stopped loyal ice bathers who swear by the technique after taking the plunge.
4. Can Reduce Risk of Injury
In addition to reducing muscle soreness, ice baths are particularly beneficial for athletes who consistently push their bodies beyond their limits to reach peak performance. Such intense activity can result in micro-tears in muscles, which could lead to inflammation and even injury.
By taking a cold bath or shower after an extended, intense exercise period, the body temperature can be brought down to help reduce inflammation, soreness, and fatigue. This approach helps lessen the strain on muscles and greatly decreases the amount of swelling that could occur from overworking them.
Ice baths are a natural and effective way for athletes to reduce their risk of injury and speed up recovery after intense physical activities.
5. Helps the Central Nervous System
Ice baths can stimulate the central nervous system by strengthening the vagus nerve, which then results in improved digestion, sharper cognition, and better mood.
It also provides a better night’s sleep and quicker reaction times.
6. Limits the Inflammatory Response
Inflammation is the body’s response to injury or infection. When a part of our body is inflamed, the affected site can appear red and swollen as well.
Since an ice bath the whole body below the head and constricts blood flow, it’s an ideal way to limit inflammation after your workout.
Additionally, when you have lower inflammation levels, you’ll need less recovery time in the future.
7. Reduces Stress and Increases Resilience
A study investigated the effects of ice baths (or cold showers) on mental health – specifically the relationship between depression and bodily temperature.
The study found that “a lack of ‘thermal exercise’ may cause inadequate functioning of the brain.” The results suggest that repeated exposure to cold temperatures can lessen depressive feelings.
If you aren’t able to stomach ice baths yet, give cold showers a go. They’re not as jarring an experience as ice baths, but they’ll still provide some benefits.
8. Supports Mood and Alertness
Nothing – not even the strongest coffee – can wake you up as quickly and effectively as an ice bath. Pure energy surges through you, and sleepiness is instantly forgotten.
The body produces adrenaline (the hormone responsible for the fight-or-flight response) when exposed to icy water.
You’ve no doubt heard of splashing cold water on your face. Ice baths kick that up a notch!
9. Reduces Your Core Body Temp
On a hot, sweaty summer day, the feeling of cool water is unbeatable. Taking a dip into ice water, just like a boiled egg straight out of the pot, will perk you right up and leave you feeling refreshed and renewed.
It’s a great time for an ice bath whenever you’re flustered or stressed out! Another excellent time for a cold plunge is the morning before a hot day out in the sun.
10. Helps Burn Fat
Whenever you dunk your body into ice water, your core temperature drops quickly.
Your body then exerts a lot of energy in an attempt to bring your temperature back up. In that process, you’ll be burning fat at a higher rate than normal.
Nevertheless, remember that ice baths can’t replace a balanced diet and an exercise regime. At best, the technique is useful to supplement other weight loss strategies.
11. Boosts the Immune System
Your immune system works constantly to fight off diseases. However, it can falter or fail at times. When that happens, it may be time to step in with immune-boosting habits, such as sinking into an ice bath.
An ice bath may keep you healthy, according to a Netherlands experiment.
Researchers linked employees having cold showers with fewer sick days at work — a 29% reduction, in fact.
In another study, the immune systems of people participating in the “Wim Hof Method” — a program exploring the benefits of enduring the cold — were tested.
These participants showed a stronger and more effective immune response that allowed them to quickly recover from infection.
12. Improves the Cardiovascular Health
Cold plunging causes blood vessels to constrict when the body is submerged in cold water, leading to an increase in blood pressure and a decrease in blood flow to extremities. Upon emerging and warming up, blood vessels dilate and blood flow increases to extremities again.
This repeated process of constricting and dilating blood vessels provides a cardiovascular workout that can help strengthen the heart and circulatory system.
While cold plunging is generally safe for most healthy individuals if done correctly, those diagnosed with high blood pressure or any heart condition should consult a healthcare professional before starting this practice regularly.
13. Offers Neurocognitive Benefits
Recent studies have revealed exciting findings regarding the connection between cold water immersions and neurocognitive benefits.
Observational studies on hibernating animals suggest that cold shock proteins, activated during cold therapy, help reinvigorate and replace synapses in the brain lost during extended sleep. These proteins could potentially help prevent or even treat neurological diseases, such as dementia or Alzheimer's, in humans.
In addition, scientists studying mice have also found promising results regarding cold shock proteins. These proteins were found to protect mice from cell death caused by various neurodegenerative illnesses. As these proteins exhibit protective properties for animals, researchers believe they can have similar effects in humans.
Who Should Avoid Taking Ice Baths?
If you have a medical condition, check with your doctor first before taking an ice bath.
In particular, people who have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and poor circulation should seek medical advice prior to taking the plunge.
Ice baths also shouldn’t be used to numb serious injuries like fractures. If that’s what you’re dealing with, see your doctor to have the medical issue resolved!
Remember, numbing is not the same as healing.
Common Questions about Ice Baths
1. How Do You Prepare for Your First Ice Bath?
You’ve decided to take an ice bath — exciting! If you have a medical condition, get the go-ahead from your doctor beforehand.
Getting into an ice bath for the first time can be truly shocking. It’s recommended you “warm up” for about a week prior by taking cold showers. Take deep breaths before you enter the water.
Gradually, you’ll work your way up to ice bath territory. When you’re ready to enter the bath, breathe deeply (like you practiced) and start standing. Slowly lower your body into the water while remaining mindful of your limits.
Beginners should only stay in for a short time at first. Slowly increase the time spent in the bath with each session.
It might also be a good idea to play it safe the first few tries, such as using a warmer temperature and gradually getting a little colder each time.
2. How Long Should an Ice Bath Be?
One particular risk of staying in an ice bath for too long is hypothermia. To prevent this, carefully measure the temperature of your bath and how long you stay in it.
Health professionals recommend a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes. For safety purposes, start with a few minutes and work your way up if desired.
3. How Often Should You Do Ice Baths?
You won’t find a definitive answer to this question in the research currently available on ice baths.
Some people take a dip every morning to help them wake up. Others do them once a week after a particularly intense workout.
If you find yourself dreading your daily freeze-fest, cut back on the number of ice baths you do per week. There’s no shame in taking a deliciously-soothing warm bath instead!
4. What Is the Ideal Temperature for an Ice Bath?
It’s recommended you get the water to 50–59° Fahrenheit. If you’re a beginner, stick to the warmer end of the scale.
To measure the temperature, dip a thermometer into the water. If the reading shows the water is too cold, add warm water; if it’s too warm, add ice cubes. For this, you’ll of course need to freeze a few trays of ice in advance.
5. When Should You Take an Ice Bath?
Most people take an ice bath in the morning to wake them up, or immediately after a strenuous workout. The positive effects will be most noticeable at these times. However, know that you’re free to take an ice bath whenever you like.
How to Take Ice Baths at Home
Running an ice bath might sound simple, but there are a few precautions you need to take.
Fill your bath or a large tub with cold water, then plop in ice cubes while constantly measuring the temperature with a thermometer.
You could buy a bag of ice or make a batch yourself if you have enough ice cube trays. If the bath gets too cold, pour in a little warm water.
Once it’s at the desired temperature, set out a warm robe or towel for when you get out of the bath. Have a timer close by, too. Time tends to freeze once you’re enjoying the water.
Then, slowly dip yourself into the bath. Start with your legs first and gradually lower yourself until your body is covered up to your neck. There’s no need to put your head underwater.
It’s recommended to have someone in your house with you while you take an ice bath should any emergencies arise. If you’ve been cleared by your doctor, then the chances of something bad happening are minimal. Still, first-timers should have support nearby.
With these factors in mind, you’re bound to have a rewarding ice bath experience. Even if you discover it’s not to your taste, you can be satisfied knowing you gave it a go!