Do Ice Baths Really Work? The Truth About This Trend
Nowadays, there are many celebrities promoting ice baths because of the benefits they bring, according to their advocates. They claim to help you sleep better, reduce muscle aches, improve your immune system, and much more.
But what is the truth about this trend, are they really that good, what does science say about this practice? Here are the answers to these questions.
Ice baths: A viral trend
In the different social networks, it’s possible to find a large number of publications, even of celebrities, showing how they immerse themselves in ice water. These videos with the hashtag #coldplunge currently exceed 500 million reproductions.
This trend is partly inspired by the Wim Hof method, named after a Dutch expert in extreme sports, which are practiced at low temperatures. Although in addition to immersion, this method includes breathing techniques.
However, there is no exact definition of what an ice bath is. It’s suggested, on the one hand, that the water temperature should be at 15 °C – that is, much lower than that of a cold shower.
Also, it’s necessary to remain submerged up to the neck for between 5 and 15 minutes, at least, to enjoy its supposed benefits. However, some go a little further and do it in frozen rivers or ponds, even in the middle of winter!
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The benefits attributed to ice baths
It’s important to note that this technique has been used, for a long time, with high-competition athletes, due to its benefits. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and why ice baths are so highly recommended.
1. Improved recovery after exercise
The reason why ice baths began to be implemented in sports is that the immersion of the limbs in ice water supposedly helps recovery after physical activity, preventing problems such as cramps or injuries. This may be particularly necessary for those who have a long day, and even for those who must train or compete several times in the same day.
2. Decreased muscle soreness
It’s also recommended in the case of those who have suffered injuries, as well as to relieve pain and muscle tension the day after a competition or heavy training. Although it’s assured that to prevent the latter, it’s more useful to stretch after exercise.
3. Ice baths may help strengthen the immune system
Another benefit of ice baths is to help strengthen the immune system. This is something that is often pointed out with regard to the Wim Hof method, as the iceman, as the Dutch athlete is called, is apparently able to show a better immune response.
4. They may help improve circulation and cardiovascular function
It’s generally believed that cold water baths can improve circulation. For this reason, it’s thought that with an ice-cold immersion, this effect would be enhanced, helping to reduce cardiovascular risk.
5. Ice baths may speed up the metabolism and weight loss
With a plunge in cold water (less than 20° C), at least for five minutes, it’s possible to accelerate the metabolism, which means that the body would be working on burning more energy. Therefore, ice baths could contribute to weight loss.
6. They’re a great way to cool down
An ice bath can be a way to cool down the body faster when it’s hot outside or after a hard workout. Although when it comes to the latter (after a workout), it’s not considered as decisive or necessary for muscle building.
7. They can improve your mood
It’s possible that there is an association between immersion in ice water and an improvement in mood; because there’s an increase in dopamine levels, thereby decreasing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
8. They reduce stress
In the same vein, it’s also claimed that swimming in very cold water can help reduce stress levels. However, it isn’t clear if this benefit can be attributed more to the ice baths or to the exercise.
9. They may improve your sleep
As a consequence of the previous points, people who have the habit of doing ice baths claim that they relax and can sleep better, achieving a more pleasant and recuperative rest.
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What does the research say?
Several types of research have been carried out that allow us to give a basis or support to some of these affirmations. In particular, we can point out the following:
- A 2012 review found that cold water immersion may contribute to a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (24 hours or more after activity).
- One study showed that there was indeed an increase in metabolism, although this is not necessarily linked to weight loss.
- Other research also confirms the relationship between ice baths with improved mood and decreased symptoms of depression.
- Similarly, there are studies that have corroborated the positive impact on the immune system of immersion in ice water, albeit combined with meditation and controlled breathing.
- The results of some research suggest that it can reduce inflammation and cardiovascular risk; although there are others that also point in the opposite direction.
- Regarding sleep quality, a comparative study was done with a group of cyclists, but no evidence was found in favor of cold water immersion.
The truth about this trend
Although some of the benefits of ice baths can be confirmed, more research is needed to reach definitive conclusions. Several of the studies reviewed were conducted with small populations.
On the other hand, some of these studies have been conducted with people who are also active in sports. And while it’s true that exposure to cold water helps release endorphins and raises dopamine levels, to mention one benefit, this may well be a consequence of exercise.
The same applies to studies where, in addition to cold water bathing, there’s an element of meditation and controlled breathing. It’s not clear how much of the benefit is due to one or the other aspect.
It should not be underestimated that there is a placebo effect of cold immersion in relation to mood. In this case, it’s possible that it’s people’s positive perception of the practice that helps them feel better.
The possible risks of ice baths
However, not everyone will enjoy the benefits attributed to ice baths. In some people it’s possible that the opposite effect may occur – i.e., far from helping, they may end up harming their overall health.
And if the immersion in ice is done for several minutes, the heat loss can cause various problems, including hypothermia. Therefore, if this practice is desired, it should not be started abruptly, but the person must spend time getting used to the low temperatures.
However, ice baths are not recommended, under any circumstances, for those who have certain health conditions, as is the case of patients with Reynaud’s disease or a history of heart disease.
Therefore, it’s suggested to consider other alternatives. Activities such as stretching after exercise, regular sports practice, or meditation can help to achieve the same benefits without incurring so many risks.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Bleakley, C., Davison G. (2010). What is the biochemical and physiological rationale for using cold-water immersion in sports recovery? A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 44, pp. 179-187. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/44/3/179
- Bleakley, C., McDonough, S., Gardner, E., Baxter G., Hopkins, J., & Davison G. (2012). Cold‐water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Vol. 2. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008262.pub2. https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD008262.pub2/full
- Espeland, D., Weerd, L. & Mercer, J. (2022). Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, Vol. 81(1). DOI: 10.1080/22423982.2022.2111789. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/22423982.2022.2111789
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- Robey, E., Dawson, B., Halson, S., Gregson, W., King, S., Goodman, C., Eastwood, P. (2013). Effect of evening postexercise cold water immersion on subsequent sleep. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Vol. 45(7), pp. 1394-1402. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23377833/
- Zwaag, J., Naaktgeboren, R., van Herwaarden, A., Pickkers, P., Kox, M. (2022). The Effects of Cold Exposure Training and a Breathing Exercise on the Inflammatory Response in Humans: A Pilot Study. Psychosom Med. Vol. 84(4), pp. 457-467. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9071023/