Cold Water Therapy Benefits: Everything You Need to Know

by | Nov 13, 2023 | Health

From celebrities to stressed-out dads, it seems like everyone is wading through the ice to thaw out body and mind. Are you ready to take the plunge? We lift the lid on cold water therapy, from ice baths to frigid showers, to find out whether a deep freeze can truly give you a new lease on life.

Cold Exposure: Taking Your First Plunge

I take a deep breath before flipping on the cold water. It’s the heart of winter, and the warm spray splashing from my showerhead has been a brief reprieve from another blistery, bitter Cape Town morning. Almost instantly, hot water is replaced with a flurry of (what feels like) glacial rain. Insanity—that’s what my brain tells me, a primal instinct that compels me to step out from under the crisp cascade.

READ MORE: Discover the Impact of Cold Plunging, the Latest TikTok Trend

But I’ve been pushing up against that fight-or-flight response in the past few weeks. Last week I swam in 13°C water in Camps Bay’s tidal pool. The week prior? I was submerged in Spar-sourced ice tipped liberally in my bathtub for a DIY plunge that put me in a state of shock. But something is starting to happen: I’ve braced myself for some serious suffering as the shower shifts into the blue, but there’s part of me that revels in the sudden dip in mercury.

That almost zealous devotion to so-called cold therapy, an adrenaline-fuelled pursuit of near-freezing temps—yeah,
I’m starting to understand the appeal.

The Science Behind Cold Water Therapy

Ice baths are nothing new. Performance athletes have been taking the plunge for decades, tapping into the power of frigid temps to accelerate their recovery times. This cold exposure helps reduce inflammation, altering how blood and other fluids flow through the body. So when you submerge, your blood vessels constrict; and when you re-emerge, they open back up.

That process—manually—helps flush out metabolic waste in the wake of a gruelling workout, says Wimpie van der Meijden, a physiotherapist and recovery specialist at The Athletic Recovery Centre. “For athletes, that’s like magic because they’ve got a small amount of time to get ready for the next race, match or game, and inflammation takes time,” he adds. “They need to get refreshed fast, and hopping into an ice bath can get them there.”

A study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance looked into the effects of cold-water immersion on top-level rugby players. The authors concluded that the practice could help reduce fatigue and pain.

Other research has supported these findings, but there are also plenty of studies that maintain that cold plunging’s edge over other recovery methods is “barely significant”. That hasn’t slowed down the widespread adoption of the practice across all sports, from rugby to tennis and Formula 1. Ultimately, the decision on whether to take a dip or not boils down to personal preference. 

bucket filled with icy water

Is Cold Water Therapy Just for Athletes?

But what does all this mean for the average Joe? Someone like me who trains three to four times a week and isn’t tackling gargantuan feats of endurance regularly. According to Van der Meijden, it’s the general populace that stands to benefit the most from an immersive experience.

“Our lifestyles are very inflammatory,” he says. From the food we eat, to the strain we put on our bodies craning over a desk all day, to the diseases and ailments running rampant and undetected, we’re prime candidates for cold exposure. 

READ MORE: Here’s How Drinking Water Can Help You Burn 490 More Calories

“These are all factors that can be affected by cold, and that’s why I think the ice bath trend has really started to pick up,” he says. “Plus, it’s an easy thing to do.” Well, mentally it can be a challenge, but rarely are we offered some serious health benefits (on tap) and all we have to do is hunker down in a bath.

Plus, when you start to wade through the ice, you might discover that the perks of these waterworks aren’t just skin-deep.

Can Cold Water Therapy Improve Your Mental Health?

If you haven’t heard about Wim Hof, you might’ve spent the last five years living under a rock. The eccentric Dutch national dominated headlines with his daredevil feats of cold immersion, from running a half marathon across the Arctic Circle barefoot to spending 112 minutes covered under a layer of ice cubes. Seems inhuman, right? Well, no. He’s been vocal about his belief that anyone can follow in his (bare) footsteps. The secret: the Wim Hof method. It’s an approach supported by three distinct pillars: commitment, breathwork and cold therapy.

Jolanie Grobbelaar is a certified Wim Hof instructor living in Sedgefield. She trained with “The Iceman” in Poland, putting in hard reps to earn her coveted qualifications. (If you’re interested, you can schedule a workshop with her at HERE). Her cold conversion was like an awakening, and she takes weekly plunges in the outdoors for a “natural high” no other practice—not even exercise—can replicate.

How Cold Water Therapy Helps Build Resilience

ladder leading to pool covered in ice

Where high-performance athletes turn to ice baths for an accelerated recovery, Grobbelaar says the true power of the cold comes from its ability to ramp up mental resilience like nothing else. “There is no other health modality that combines mindset training, breathwork and cold exposure,” she says of the Wim Hof method. “They work together and reinforce each other for some real mental health benefits.”

“I was hooked after my first attempt,” says Ricky Delacour, the co-founder of Renesis. His company sells fully automated luxury ice baths, providing a permanent (and convenient) solution for those looking for colder comforts.

While he’s quick to sing the praises of cold immersion’s recovery repertoire, he believes the secret behind plunging’s mainstream success is the plethora of mental health benefits a quick bath can provide. “Regularly subjecting yourself to cold water is mentally challenging and requires discipline,” he adds. “Overcoming these challenges leads to increased resilience and willpower.”

Research on the Mood-boosting Benefits of Cold Water Therapy

On the research front, we’re at the tip of the iceberg of what cold immersion can do for your mind. One study found that cold exposure can help reduce your stress levels, while another—from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine—discovered that even just taking regular cold showers could act as a powerful treatment for depression. Further research suggests that cold exposure may even be able to improve your focus and awareness by spiking the secretion of the hormone norepinephrine.

READ MORE: Worried Sick: 7 Ways Stress Can (Seriously) Hurt Your Health

During my adventures in cold therapy, I definitely noticed a mental boost after emerging from my chosen tundra. And the best part? These effects seemed to persist for hours after I had immersed myself in the ice. Van der Meijden adds that those effects aren’t short-lived: a plunge (in appropriately cold water; think: below 15 degrees) can result in elevated dopamine levels for up to four hours after you’ve taken a dip.

Cold Water Therapy: How to Get Started

man showering in cold water
Getty Images/Westend61

You don’t have to invest thousands of your hard-earned Randelas straight out of the gate. You can, as I did, start with a cold shower. “When it comes to [cold immersion], you have to be intentional in your approach,” says Grobbelaar. “Tell yourself, you’re going to be committed, you’re going to be focused.”

Start Here: The 20-Day Cold Shower Challenge

Grobbelaar recommends gradually acclimating yourself to colder confines with a 20-day cold shower challenge. During your morning ablutions, cap your shower sesh with 15 seconds under a cold spray. Each day, up the ante, spending extra seconds exposing yourself to lower temps.

You’re aiming for around two minutes of exposure by the end of this period, so you’ll need to steel your mind for some serious discomfort. That means focusing on relaxing your breathing with long inhales and longer exhales. (Wim Hof style!)

“Cold showers are the simplest way to start,” says Delacour. And, when you’ve mastered that domain. You can take the same tapering approach to your ice bath adventures. Starting at a higher temp and working your way down. “Stay mindful and listen to your body’s cues,” he adds. “It’s called ‘deliberate’ cold exposure for a reason—it’s all about mindset.”

SA Sevens rugby player James Murphy says that after three minutes spent soaking in icy water, he’s able to tap into a place of unparalleled focus and control. “Mentally, I feel much more proactive and awake after an ice bath,” he adds. “It’s also a part of the day where I can escape stress and unwanted fatigue.”

Bottomline: Why Cold Water Therapy Might Work for You

I must admit, I was skeptical of this new ice age. It seemed like a fad, fuel for overly edited TikToks and Instagram reels. A dramatic way for muscly influencers to demonstrate their steely and unwavering bravado. But now, after (literally) taking the plunge, it’s clear there’s something powerful lurking under the ice.

All I can say is that if you’re curious, there’s no harm in changing the temperature. A cold splash might be exactly what you need to thaw out your full potential.

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