Going cold water swimming during the winter months, or hoping into an icy bath is just for professional athletes after a game you say? And for hard-core fitness buffs? Well, no, actually…
Jumping into the sea, an ice bath or using cold-water (shower) therapy is a practice that’s been around for years, centuries in fact! And it’s full of health and wellness benefits – both physical and mental.
Cold water therapy is the practice of using water that’s around 5°C – 15°C and known as cold hydrotherapy. Fans use the method to remedy muscle soreness, stress and more.
Although the practice has been around for a couple of millennia, recent adaptions include ice baths, brisk daily showers, outdoor swims, and cold-water immersion therapy sessions.
What are the benefits?
- Reduces inflammation and swelling: When you take an ice bath, the cold temperature narrows your blood vessels. This decreases blood flow to your muscles, which may reduce inflammation and swelling. Research suggests that the cold-water therapy technique lowers post-exercise inflammation better than other methods like compression socks.
- Relieves muscle soreness: Scientists aren’t exactly sure how it works but stepping into a cold bath might help relieve muscle soreness. Less inflammation and slower nerve signalling could mean less pain. That explains why studies found that ice baths reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise. Evidence suggests that ice baths may also ease pain from chronic conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and fibromyalgia.
- Aids exercise recovery: When you get out of an ice bath, your blood vessels dilate, or re-open, increasing circulation. The nutrient-rich blood flow to your muscle may help remove metabolic waste that builds up during exercise. That’s another reason people use ice baths for post-workout recovery.
- Lowers Core Body Temperature: One of the more obvious benefits is that ice baths help you cool down when you’re overheated. Studies in 2015 concluded that contact with cold water (10°C) cooled off overheated people twice as fast as recovery without hydrotherapy. Cooling down after you work up a sweat can help you avoid heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
- Improves Mental Health: A small study found that taking an ice bath 4 days a week improved quality of life in people with gout. They had better joint mobility and less stress, anxiety, and depression. Scientists think that exposing your body to cold water triggers a stress response and activates the nervous system. These changes can improve your mood and help you adapt to stress over time.
- Supports Immune System: Some evidence suggests that ice baths support a healthy immune system; improving the body’s ability to fight illness.
In a small study, people who combined cold water immersion, deep breathing, and meditation had fewer bacterial infection symptoms than those who did not.
As well as benefits listed above, some advocates say it can also decrease inflammation, improve your sleep, and sharpen your mental focus. But more research needs to be done.
If you decide to try cold water immersion, talk to your doctor first to make sure it’s safe for you.
Test the benefits of cold-water therapy for yourself, and try it out in several different ways:
- Take warm-to-cold showers. Start with warm water and, after a few minutes, gradually drop the temperature.
- Skip the warmup and go straight to a cold shower. This may be especially helpful if you’ve just finished working out.
- Immerse yourself in an ice bath: Add ice to water until the temperature is between 5°C and 15°C and stay submerged for only 4 to 15 minutes.
- Jump into the your local river, lake, sea or ocean: Do research and make sure it’s a safe location and you have a friend with you.
- Keep immersions brief. To get the health benefits of cold-water therapy, a few minutes may be all you need. Although you can gradually increase your cold tolerance, there’s no therapeutic reason to stay in cold water longer than a few minutes.
As always, stay fit, happy and healthy!
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