Ice, Ice, Baby: 7 Cool Benefits of Taking an Ice Bath
Medically reviewed by Gregory Minnis, DPT, Physical Therapy — Written by Alysa Hullett on October 12, 2021
This article is a repost which originally appeared on GREATIST
Edited for content.
Hold the candles, magazine, and wine for another time. Plunging into arctic-cold water might not sound like the most relaxing experience — but an ice bath might be worth it for the health benefits.
Advocates say ice baths reduce muscle pain, soreness, and give your health a boost. Anti-ice bathers say it’s ineffective or even dangerous. So, does freezing yourself from head to toe really do your bod any good?
While the science is mixed, ice baths might offer benefits like:
- ease achy muscles
- improve workout recovery
- reduce stress
- cool you down
- boost circulation
- support a healthy immune system
- boost your mood
FYI: Those with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes (type 1 or 2) should prob avoid ice baths. Talk with your doc if you’re not sure.
Ice baths: A long, frigid history
Also called cold-water immersion (CWI) or cold hydrotherapy, lots of athletes and fit fam folks love ice baths. That means going for an icy dip in water that’s 50 to 59°F (10 to 15°C), especially after exercise, for about 10 to 15 mins.
People have been taking cold baths for centuries. The Spartans of ancient Greece were super into them, and Hippocrates used them to treat fevers, hemorrhages, and ulcers. (The more you know 💫.) In the past several decades, they’ve been used in U.S. military training and by pro athletes like Michael Phelps and LeBron James.
Despite loyal cold bathers, a small 2017 study found a chilly dip was just as effective as low intensity exercise for easing sore muscles. Keep in mind, the study was only conducted on nine men, so we need more research. But even pro-ice bath research isn’t 10/10 proven.
Cold water immersion isn’t to be confused with cryotherapy, which is a lot more intense, involving temps below negative 200°F (93°C). 🥶
Yeah… that’s a whole other (arctic) beast, and one you def don’t want to try at home.
1. Eases achy muscles
There’s some evidence that cold water immersion reduces muscle soreness after exercise. Cold water may help ease pain by causing your blood vessels to constrict. This reduces blood flow to the area and reduces swelling.
In a small 2020 study, researchers found cold water immersion to benefit muscle recovery when volleyball players practiced it several times after training over 16 days. However, they didn’t find any noticeable results in a week’s time.
A small 2016 study also found athletes who soaked in cold water reported less muscle soreness after exercising than those who didn’t.
It could be that when it comes to getting icy, consistency is key.
2. May improve workout recovery
It’s no secret that ice baths have been used by athletes so they could train harder and faster.
Heads up, though: The doctor who helped popularize ice for exercise recovery in the 1970s has since retracted his claims. These days, he says it could even delay recovery. 🤯
Even though most peeps these days look to an ice pack to soothe a sore muscle, the research still remains inconclusive on whether it truly supports healing.
3. Reduces stress
Nail biters, rejoice: That icy chill just might help you chill out.
According to 2018 research, cold stimulation (specifically in the neck region) stimulates the vagus nerve, thereby lowering heart rate and potentially reducing stress.
In a 2014 review of hydrotherapy treatments, researchers concluded that cold exposure (like a cold compress or ice bath) can boost the capacity and function of your central nervous system (CNS). A functional CNS can help you sleep better and just feel better.
4. Cools you down
Surprise: Taking a cool bath cools you off — and much more effectively than other methods.
In a 2015 review of 19 studies, researchers concluded that contact with cold water cooled off overheated peeps twice as fast as otherwise. The trick? Immerse as much of your skin as possible.
Whether you just endured a killer workout or temps are getting dangerously high where you live, cooling off quickly can be vital in a range of situations.
5. Boosts circulation
Freezing baths just might make for a happy heart.
When you submerge in cold water, blood rushes to your vital organs. Your heart then needs to work harder, pushing blood through your vessels and giving your bod the vital oxygen and nutrients it needs.
Keep in mind that going on a 10-minute walk can give you a similar blood-circulatory boost. Really don’t want to walk it out? Try an ice bath instead.
6. Supports a healthy immune system
Okay, so “boosting” your immune system isn’t actually a thing — but you can help support a healthy one.
Cold baths might help you do just that. A 2016 study found that people who take cold showers (not baths, but hey, same idea) are almost 30 percent less likely to call in sick for work or school.
In a 2014 study, researchers concluded that people were able to positively impact their own immune response through cold water immersion, deep breathing, and meditation. When exposed to a bacterial infection, participants who used these techniques had fewer symptoms and produced a stronger anti-inflammatory response.
7. Gives your mood a boost
A cold bath (or shower) a day just might keep the blues away.
A 2014 review found cold showers to have an antidepressant effect. Researchers say this is due to the cold receptors sending a jolt of electrical impulses to the brain’s nerve endings, thereby improving mental state.
While more research might be needed to truly understand the link between depression and ice baths, a little ice in your life just might help your mood.
Time to dive in: How to take an ice bath
Ready to take the plunge? Here’s how to make the most of your ice bath.
- Timing is everything. Sports trainers generally recommend hopping in the ice bath as soon as you can after your workout. That way, you can target your muscles while they’re still in the healing process.
- Keep it cool (but not too cool). Try to keep your ice bath to a temp of about 50 to 59°F (10 to 15°C). It might not sound that cold, but you’ll def feel the chill. (Pro tip: Get a baby bath thermometer.)
- Make it short and sweet. An ice bath is def not the time to test how pruned your fingers and toes can get. Aim to stay in no more than 10 to 15 minutes.
Staying safe in icy conditions
It’s possible to get hypothermia or frostbite from an ice bath, so don’t take the time limit lightly. Set a timer if you need and always pay attention to your bod’s unique needs.
If you notice your skin changing colors, it’s def time to hop out.
Wait, cool it: Who shouldn’t try an ice bath?
Are there any safety concerns for certain populations? Though ice baths can be potentially risky for everyone, some populations may be especially prone to negative effects. You should likely avoid ice bathing if you:
- have type 1 or 2 diabetes
- have a preexisting cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure
- have another condition that impacts your ability to regulate body temperature or blood pressure
If you’re not sure if an ice bath is right for you, talk with your doc.
There’s some research that suggests ice baths can help promote muscle recovery and provide a number of health benefits like reducing stress and improving your mood. But the research is still a bit controversial and inconclusive.
Those with type 1 or 2 diabetes, preexisting cardiovascular disease, or high blood pressure should avoid ice baths. If you plan to take the plunge, stay safe by doing so for no more than 10 to 15 minutes and at a temp of no less than 50 to 59°F (10 to 15°C).
- Allan R, et al. (2017). Is the ice bath finally melting?
- Buijze GA, et al. (2016). The effect of cold showering on health and work.
- Jungmann M, et al. (2018). Effects of cold stimulation on cardiac-vagal activation in healthy participants.
- Kox M, et al. (2014). Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans.
- Mooventhan A, et al. (2014). Scientific evidence-based effects of hydrotherapy on various systems of the body.
- Tavares F, et al. (2020). The acute and longer-term effects of cold water immersion in highly trained volleyball athletes during an intense training block.
- Yeung SS, et al. (2016). Effects of cold water immersion on muscle oxygenation during repeated bouts of fatiguing exercise.
- Zhang Y, et al. (2015). Optimizing cold water immersion for exercise induced hyperthermia.