From ice baths to cold tubs, social media is crawling with athletes and celebrities taking the plunge into cold therapy.
And while cold exposure may be trendy nowadays, it’s nothing new. Cultures have practiced cold immersion for centuries, all in the name of health and well-being.
More recently, this practice was popularized by Wim Hof. Nicknamed the “Ice Man,” Hof is an extreme athlete and motivational coach known for his record-breaking dips into icy waters. But Hof isn’t the only one to sing cold plunging praises.
Cold water therapy has been hailed by personal trainers, chiropractors, physical therapists, and other health professionals for its ability to ease muscle pain, boost recovery, and much more.
If you’re new to cold plunging, it’s normal to be wary and wonder if it’s worth the hype. So read on to dive into what the research says about the benefits of cold plunge along with tips for how to begin a cold plunge practice.
But first, let’s start with the basics…
As the name suggests, a cold plunge involves submerging your body into cold water, usually below 60°F (or 15°C).
There’s a lot of debate about the ideal temperature. But as a rule, the colder the water, the less time it takes to see the benefits. That said, you should always start small and work your way up. More on this later…
The shock of plunging your body into cold water constricts your blood vessels. This boosts your circulation and triggers a cascade of benefits – for your physical and mental health.
Curious how a cold plunge may impact your health and well-being? Without further ado, here are eight crazy cool benefits of cold plunge.
Ever use an ice pack to ease a sore muscle? Then you’ve experienced the power cold has to ease inflammation. Cold plunging takes this to a whole new level.
Research shows cold exposure has anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Combining it with breathwork only enhances its ability to lower inflammation.
Inflammation is linked with several chronic conditions, including depression, diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis. Cold plunging offers a natural way to tame inflammation, which may offer relief.
There’s a reason athletes flock to ice baths. Cold water therapy boosts circulation, which helps oxygenate your muscles. This can help relieve muscle soreness and pain.
One study found that soccer players felt less muscle soreness and fatigue after cold water immersion. Another study of Jiu-Jitsu athletes found that cold plunging reduced pain and boosted muscle recovery.
But these benefits don’t just translate to athletes. One study had patients with arthritis try cold water therapy for four weeks. They found that it reduced pain and inflammation and improved joint mobility.
Cold plunging may even give your immune system an upgrade. Research shows cold water therapy increases white blood cells and the activity of natural killer cells, which help the body fight off infections.
Cold exposure even boosts antioxidants such as glutathione, which strengthens immunity. In fact, one study found that taking cold showers reduced sick days by 29%.
Taking a cold plunge may just perk up your mood. Cold water immersion lowers the stress hormone cortisol, easing stress and anxiety. But it also increases neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine on a massive scale.
Dopamine, one of your body’s “feel-good neurotransmitters,” helps you feel pleasure and motivation. And norepinephrine is an excitatory neurotransmitter that’s often low in people with depression.
One study found that cold plunging raised dopamine by 250% and norepinephrine by a whopping 530%!
Norepinephrine doesn’t just play a role in your mood – it affects your energy as well. And since taking a cold plunge sends norepinephrine through the roof, it may do the same for your energy levels.
As mentioned, exposure to cold temperatures constricts your blood vessels. This boosts circulation, which may reduce puffiness and even give your skin a healthy glow.
Dunking yourself into icy cold water triggers your sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Your heart rate speeds up, your blood pressure rises, and you get a shot of noradrenaline.
And while too much stress is bad, healthy doses of stress build resilience. This is known as hormesis.
When you expose yourself to short bursts of stress, whether that’s from a workout, sauna sesh, or cold plunge, your body then has to recover. The more you cold plunge, the more your body practices shutting the stress response down.
Over time, this builds your stress resiliency. Things that used to drive you nuts, may barely be a blip on the radar. That’s certainly been the case with me!
Cold plunging may even help you lose weight. One study found that cold exposure transforms white fat into brown fat.
Excess body fat is made up of white fat. But brown fat burns calories to regulate your body temperature. This gives your metabolism a boost, generates more energy, and may support weight loss.
Now that you know some of the benefits of cold plunge, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how to do it. You may be thinking, “Uh, don’t I just get into cold water?”
While it may sound deceptively simple, everyone's tolerance to cold is unique. So when starting, there are some guidelines it’s best to follow.
But first, let’s cover your cold plunge options:
Other ways to try cold therapy:
Once you’ve picked where to take your first plunge, you’ll want to prepare yourself – physically and mentally. So here are my top tips for cold plunging for beginners:
Dipping yourself into icy waters is a mental workout. And your breath is the most powerful tool to get your mind working FOR you, rather than against you.
All cold plungers have their breath of choice. Some use box breathing. Others focus on extending their exhales to calm the nervous system. But many cold plungers (myself included) go with the Wim Hof method.
Created by the “Ice Man” himself, this method combines deep and rhythmic breathing with breath holds. Hof claims this increases oxygen in the blood, allowing deeper breath holds over time.
To learn the Wim Hof method, check out this video:
Wim Hof Method Guided Breathing for Beginners (3 Rounds Slow Pace)
Don’t go to extremes from the get-go! With cold plunge, slow and steady wins every time. If you’re sensitive to cold, start somewhere between 50-60 degrees F. The water should feel uncomfortably cold, but still safe.
The more you cold plunge, the more your cold tolerance will build. Then, you can start dropping a degree every week or so if you want more.
Same as with temperature, how long to cold plunge will vary from person to person. But in the beginning, it’s best to start small with around 1-2 minutes. Maybe even less if you’re uber-sensitive to cold. It’s really the first minute or less that is the real mind game.
Set a timer so you won’t be staring at the clock non-stop and focus on your breathing. If you start shivering – it might be time to get out. As you get more comfortable, you can increase the time. It’s said that the best benefits of cold plunge come from 2-10 minutes. But listen to your body and find the right dose for you.
The greatest benefits of cold plunge come from full submersion (aka everything from the neck down). Some cold plungers even dunk their head!
But you don’t have to fully submerge yourself from the start – especially if you’re super sensitive. In fact, you could even just start by dipping your legs. Start small and build up your tolerance gradually. There’s no reward for pushing your body to the limits.
While your first instinct after a cold plunge may be to jump into a hot shower – don’t! The sudden temperature change could cause you to pass out. It’s better to raise your temperature gradually.
If you’re cold plunging outdoors, step one is to get the heck inside. Put on something warm and comfy, and do some light movement and deep breathing. Or sip on a cup of hot tea. Give your body a chance to come back into balance naturally.
Just be careful as the warming process involves pretty intense shivering – so don’t burn yourself with a hot beverage!
Everything’s better with a friend, including cold plunging. This gives you the moral support you need to stick it out when you want to get out. Plus, it just makes it more fun AND safer in case you slip and fall, feel lightheaded, or just need a helping hand for whatever reason.
Cold plunging is safe when done properly. But like all cold exposure, it does carry some risks, such as hypothermia. So as said, if you start shivering, it’s time to get out.
Also, dipping into icy cold water can increase your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. This can increase the risk of drowning (another reason it’s wise to have a buddy). So, always start slowly and find the right dose.
And who’s cold plunge not for? If you have problems with circulation, heart rate, or blood pressure, it may not be a good fit.
This article wouldn’t be complete without sharing my own cold plunging experience.
I’ll be real, before cold plunging I had a huge aversion to cold. I even considered moving to a warmer climate in the winters – and that was after living in Aspen for 20 years!
I figured it was my hormones, but after getting them rebalanced, the cold aversion stuck. So I dipped my toe into cold water therapy with cold showers. But it didn’t reset my cold meter much.
Then my friend Meg bought a cold plunge tub for her home. After hearing rave reviews from her, I reluctantly tried it.
Afterward, I felt euphoric. I found myself the cold hater craving my next plunge. Ever since then, I’ve taken a cold plunge weekly – sometimes at her house and other times outdoors in a lake or river.
The benefits I’ve experienced are too long to list. But my biggest cold plunge takeaway is a major stress shift. Cold plunge is a mental game. Getting into freezing cold water makes you want to get out – and get out fast!
But when you just get into your body, breathe, and stay with it – it’s the ultimate mental workout. You learn to just observe the sensations, instead of reacting.
Anxiety is just a sensation. And if we can observe it – without identifying with it – it will go away at some point.
My cold plunge practice has dramatically changed my mental outlook and perspective. What used to annoy or frustrate me, I can now view through a lens of neutrality. That, in and of itself, is priceless.
Just for fun, here’s a video of one of my latest cold plunge outings. You can also follow my cold plunge adventures on Instagram.
Roaring Fork Winter River Plunge 18 degrees (F)
Disclaimer: Doing cold plunges the way my friend Meg and I do them is NOT recommended for the average person. Our cold plunge practice has built up our cold tolerance over time. Do not attempt this when starting out!
Plunging into ice-cold water may seem weird, but cold plunge has a laundry list of benefits. It boosts your mood, increases energy, eases sore muscles, strengthens immunity, and so much more.
But if you’re new to cold plunge, it’s best to start small and slowly work your way up. If you go to extremes too soon, you may throw in the towel before things start getting really good.
While cold plunging has been a game-changer for me, achieving optimal health is an ongoing journey. If you’re struggling with your health or could use some support, we’re here to help.
At Core Flex Wellness, we use a functional medicine approach, finding the root cause of imbalances to restore health and well-being.
Click here to book your free discovery consult. It just might be the first step on your journey back to health!
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Coreflex Wellness is located in Basalt, CO, and serves clients throughout Aspen and Glenwood Springs. These areas include but are not limited to Snowmass, Carbondale, New Castle, Palisade, Grand Junction, Telluride, Durango, Montrose, Eagle, Edwards, Frisco, Boulder, and Denver.