The idea ice bath is abhorrent to me, probably because I’m always freezing cold But, I’ve been hearing from so many friends how cold water therapy can do everything from reducing post-workout muscle soreness to help lose weight. I started to wonder if it might be worth pushing through the pain of an ice bath to get the benefits.
Do ice baths really have so many benefits? The research shows that cold baths do improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and might possibly improve mental health. They might also contribute to weight loss. But despite common conceptions, research shows cold baths and ice baths after workouts do not increase muscle generation.
Looking more deeply into the science of ice baths convinced me that I should at least give it a try. I have a rib that goes in and out of the joint and causes me chronic pain. Would the ice bath help that? Or would I die trying to find out?
What is an Ice Bath?
A cold bath generally involves soaking in water that’s approximately 10–15° Celsius or 50–59° Fahrenheit for 10-15 minutes. This is also referred to as CWI, or Cold Water Immersion.
Let me put this into perspective: I moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Austin, Texas simply because I couldn’t handle the winters for one more day. For that reason, I’m not going to dive into a cold water bath without a mound of evidence that it might work a miracle.
I spoke to William Shaw, a personal trainer in Austin, Texas. He tells me that he recommends ice baths to most of his clients for recovery and building willpower. He says:
Every time it’s a mental battle. It’s a willpower thing. Especially nowadays people get overwhelmed too easily when you just need to buckle down and get something done. So many pro athletes and people I know swear by it. Science maybe hasn’t yet discovered the exact mechanism why it works.
Shaw is right that most of the science around ice baths is murky. But there are some benefits proven by research, even if the reasons behind these results are not yet fully understood.
Ice Bath Science: Benefits Already Supported by Research
Cold Water Immersion Turns On Your Anti-Inflammatory Response
The very first study I read on the immune systems of cold-exposed humans gave me a little bit of hope! Granted it’s a small study. And the results aren’t knock-your-socks-off but they are statistically significant. Here’s what happened: Scientists in the Czech Republic had a group of athletes submerge themselves in water that was 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit. The athletes did this three times a week and remained in the water for one hour.
After one session, the scientists did not observe any changes in the anti-inflammatory responses of the athletes. But after six weeks, they observed a slight activation in the athletes’ immune systems.
More convincing, though, I discovered a meta-analysis of 99 studies that compared the anti-inflammatory effects of several types of therapy. Of all the therapies examined, massage and cold therapy proved most effective in reducing inflammation.
I’ll take a massage over a cold bath any day! I need more to convince me to take an icy plunge.
The fact that many of the same studies included in the meta-analysis found that circulation also improves with ice baths is another intriguing perk.
Cold Air and Water Also Improve Circulation
Have you heard about cryotherapy tanks? These are popping up everywhere in Austin, Texas where I live. You get into a tank that is -200°F and -256 °F for 2- 3 minutes. The idea is that blood flow is constricted by the freezing temperatures and then when you get out and warm up, the blood rushes to your frozen muscles bringing with it new white blood cells that fight inflammation.
If you’re a wimp like me, you can do “localized cryotherapy.” In this case, the cryotherapist sprays you with a hose of freezing mist exactly on the spot that hurts. The same idea is at work, though: Once you remove the freezing temperatures, your blood will rush into heal the area, flooding your cells with nutrients and promotes healing.
I tried the localized cryotherapy on my rib joint. And it did help for a period of time. I think if I kept it up 3x per week, it might really work long-term. The place I went for this is called ReStore.
According to ReStore’s Ultimate Guide to Cryotherapy:
Our bodies are incredibly smart. The body will immediately recognize there’s no way we can maintain our internal core temperature. There are receptors below our skin’s surface that instruct the nervous system into “vasoconstriction” which is the shrinking of arteries and blood vessels…Once you leave a cryotherapy chamber, your nutrient and mineral-filled blood is returned from your core to the peripheral tissues. You leave feeling great.
Just like cryotherapy which is done with freezing cold air, cold water baths works the exact same way. The frigid water temperature causes vasoconstriction—narrowing of the veins and arteries. Then, once you’re warm, fresh blood rushes through to promote healing.
3 Potential Cold Water Therapy Benefits That Need More Research
This next class of cold water bathing benefits is backed up by some research, but not enough to make a solid case. Still, it’s my contention that anecdotal evidence is often light-years —or at least a decade—ahead of conventional medicine.
And you can find plenty of folks who will tell you that cold water baths help their moods and their waistlines.
1. Do Cold Baths and Cold Showers Improve Mental Health?
Researchers at the Department of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine are very curious about the impact of cold water therapy on mental health.
In one study, researchers found that cold water immersion might have antipsychotic effects like those induced by electroconvulsive therapy. Think about that for a second: A freezing cold shower impacts the brain in the same way as electroshock therapy. And if that’s what you need, it can be a good thing.
Another study out of the same department looked at whether cold showers could be a treatment for depression. These researchers hypothesized the depression was caused by two factors:
(A) A lifestyle that lacks certain physiological stressors that have been experienced by primates through millions of years of evolution, such as brief changes in body temperature (e.g. cold swim), and this lack of “thermal exercise” may cause inadequate functioning of the brain. (B) Genetic makeup that predisposes an individual to be affected by the above condition more seriously than other people.
As a result of this study, researchers were optimistic that cold therapy could help but need to follow up with larger sample size.
2. Will an Ice Bath Help You Lose Weight?
I’m sorry to say but those of you who nearly freeze yourselves to death with hopes to once again fit into your “hot jeans,” might be wasting your time.
But, then again, you might not.
I bring you this news despite the famous people who swear that routinely shivering in an ice bath has helped them lose weight. These chill celebrities include NASA scientist Ray Cronise and popular life hacker and author of The 4-Hour Body Tim Ferriss.
Now to be fair, it could be just that the research hasn’t yet proven the impact of the big chill on the big tummy.
How Many Calories Does an Ice Bath Burn?
But at least one researcher says an hour spent shivering can burn 400 calories. That’s about the same number of calories as I’d burn in an hour on the elliptical…if I could stay on the elliptical for a whole hour. But, then again, there’s no chance that I’d stay in an ice bath for a whole hour either.
So while the science on cold water immersion and weight loss isn’t yet crystal clear (no pun intended), there is great news to share: soaking in a hot bath definitely burns calories. This is called passive heating, and it can be accomplished by sitting in a sauna as well.
A soak in a hot bath for one hour burns 140 calories, which is as many calories as you’d shave off in a 30-minute walk. Then again, that is a very hot bath that’s 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather sit in a slightly less hot bath for several hours knowing for sure that I’m burning 420 calories than get into a cold bath for any amount of time.
And in case you’re wondering, the benefits for passive heating go well beyond weight loss to include improved cardiovascular health and reduced inflammation.
3. Can Cold Water Make Your Hair Look Better?
First of all, this benefit applies more to a cold shower than an ice bath. In an ice bath, you definitely do not want to dunk your head. Bad idea. That said, cold water is to hair like shea butter is to skin. In other words, it really can make it look super healthy and nourished.
My scientific proof for this one is that the leading salon in dealing with frizz swears by the benefits of cold water. Hear my out: Once when I was in Manhattan, I decided to splurge and get my haircut in a salon that specializes in cutting curly hair. At my DevaChan appointment, which was more like a religious experience, I learned that cold water is my friend.
Frizziness plagues those of us with curls, especially on damp, humid days. The frizz is actually our hair standing on end seeking moisture from the dry air. If we can endure a cold blast at the end of our showers, we will lock in the conditioner and moisture. Our hair will be shiny and healthy looking.
According to the DevaCurl blog, you should shower with cold water if at all possible:
Hot water, is well, hot and so it can cause serious heat damage to your hair (especially right at the back of your head, the part that comes into direct contact with the full force pressure of your showerhead). Swapping for cool water not only prevents heat damage, but even if you just commit to doing a cool rinse at the end of your shower, this helps close your hair’s cuticle, which seals in moisture and will make your hair look eons better. Trust us.
I have to say, when I left the salon, my hair did look shiny and healthy! That lasted until I went back to my weak ways and once again, washed my hair beneath a scalding hot shower.
Perhaps a true experiment is in order to prove what all of us curly-haired folks already know.
A Common Ice Bath Myth
Do Ice Baths Increase Muscle Generation?
Many athletes take ice baths, because they think immersing themselves in cold water following a workout helps the muscle build faster. Unfortunately, a study that came out this month debunks this myth.
The study examined a group of men as they lifted weights for seven weeks. The control group did nothing after their workouts, while the athletes in the experimental group took an ice bath following each weight lifting session.
After the trial period, researchers examined their muscles. All of them had increased the mass of their muscle fibers. However, those in the control group had enlarged their muscles more.
The lead researcher in the study theorized that the reason for less muscle mass development is that the body is prioritizing keeping muscles warm over helping them grow. In a recent article in the New York Times, the researcher Dr. Peterson said:
Based on our study and previous research, using cold-water immersion following weight training is not recommended.
So while there are other reasons to take a cold bath after a workout, bulking up isn’t one of them.
Are Ice Baths Dangerous?
Doctors agree that people with the following conditions should not take ice baths and cold water immersion:
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes, Types 1 and 2
These conditions are associated with trouble pumping blood through the arteries and veins. The cold temperature of immersion can lead to danger.
Elderly, sick or pregnant women should avoid ice baths.
Also, sitting in a cold bath too long can lead to hypothermia, so anyone who experiences pain or numbness in a cold bath should get out immediately.
How to Take an Ice Bath – 7 Steps
Now that you know the potential benefits and drawbacks of ice baths and cold water immersion, do you still want to take the plunge?
Honestly, that spot where I got my rib out of whack is still bothering me. I haven’t been able to go back to the gym for weeks. It’s almost—almost—enough to make me think the short-term pain of immersing myself in my worst nightmare—the cold–would be worth it.
Just to humor myself, I decided to find out exactly how to take an ice bath should I decide to go through with it.
Here’s what I found:
1. Set up your ice bath
Buy a bag of ice. Fill the tub halfway with cold water. Add half the bag of ice to start. Now you’ll use a thermometer to take the temperature of the water, before adding any more ice.
2. Measure the temperature
Once you’re a seasoned ice bather, you can aim for a temperature 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit, but like any athletic endeavor, you’ll work toward that over time. You don’t want to shock your system and cause problems. Start with a bath that’s 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit, and the next time reduce the temperature by two degrees.
If your bath is too cold, add warm water. If it’s too warm, add more ice.
3. Wear some key clothes
You’ll want to cover your top with a shirt. You also can wear underpants and booties or socks on your feet.
4. Plan your distractions
Prepare something to do in the tub to pass the time. This isn’t about relaxing into the moment like you’d do in a hot tub. This is more about survival, so bring a book or a set up an iPad on the bathroom counter with your favorite show on it.
5. Set a timer
For your first cold bath, aim for 6 minutes. Increase the time with each bath by 2 minutes, working up to 10-15 minutes.
6. Take precautions and go slow
Start by sitting up in the tub with your legs and feet submerged. If you want, you can slowly, slowly ease your back under the water, too. (But if you only get in that far, kudos on your toughness. I’m impressed.)
Only submerge the lower half of your body to avoid shock. Start with 6 minutes and work up to 15 minutes over time.
7. After the bath put on something warm and delicious
Dry off and put on something warm and cozy. (Here’s my all-time coziest bathrobe.) If you need a warm shower, wait 30 minutes.
So will I take the ice bath plunge?
Some of us are cold-wimps at birth. I am one and I’m proud. That’s why, after much consideration, research and deliberation, I’ve sided with the New York Times reader who responded to a recent article on ice baths with this insight:
I enjoy a hot bath on the rare occasion where I feel sore and tired. It relaxes the muscles and I can’t imagine taking a resting nap in a freezing cold bath anyway. And I need the challenge of freezing my nuts off at my age like I need a hole in the head, too.
Even though I don’t have any nuts to speak of, I agree: it’s nuts to get so cold when you don’t really have to.
What is cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is the application of cold either to the whole body or an injured area, in an effort to induce a range of health benefits. For the whole body treatment, the patient steps into a cryotherapy tank that looks like a barrel with their head poking out the top. They wear mittens on the hands and socks on the feet to prevent hypothermia. The patient stays in the cryotherapy tank for 2-3 minutes while the temperature drops to negative 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies show that benefits include reducing arthritis pain, migraine pain and never irritation. There are even theories that cryotherapy can be used to combat Alzheimer’s Disease.
What is a contrast bath?
This is a treatment administered by physical therapists to reduce swelling and pain. Contrast baths involve submerging the injured body part in a hot whirlpool tub for about 4 minutes and then submerging the injured area in cold or ice water for up to 1 minute. This sequence is repeated for about 20-30 minutes. The opening of blood vessels with warm water and closing them with cold water causes blood to pump to the site of the injury. This is thought to reduce pain and inflammation.