Cold exposure isn’t new. Battling inclement weather has been a part of the human experience as long as we’ve existed. What is relatively new is that now people are paying to throw themselves into vats of ice cold water. Whether poised and serene or clenching through every second, by now you’ve probably seen photos of fitness enthusiasts and spiritual gangsters alike proudly submerged in blue-tinged tubs, waxing in their caption on the experience of surrendering to intense cold. Can willfully inviting the teeth-chattering challenge be all that it’s cracked up to be? We soaked up the science behind this frigid fad.
How Cold Plunge Works
Cold plunges are a more accessible version of cryotherapy, which is both documented by science and touted by all-star athletes for its incomparable recovery and rejuvenation benefits. Physiologically, short term exposure to temperatures just above freezing reduces inflammation and muscle soreness, the same concept as applying ice to a sore joint. On a deeper level, confronting the cold water provides a manageable form of physical resistance that the body can react to and safely escape from. For those with anxiety, depression, or other mental wellness setbacks, it can be a way to directly engage and flush the chronic fight-or-flight state. A few minutes in the cold followed by a warm towel often completes the stress cycle and allows the stuck, toxic adrenaline to be processed out, allowing the body to relax and produce feel-good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine instead. Many participants report noticeable differences in sleep quality, energy levels, and immune function.
Ways to Take a Cold Plunge
Unlike high-end cryo chambers, super cold water is available pretty much anywhere.
Get out in the wild
The OG method to face off against the forces of nature and strengthen your primal instincts. Wait until the weather drops to about 40-60 degrees and take a dive in your nearest ocean, river, or lake. Make sure to bring a buddy and a toasty change of clothes!
Do a DIY
Turn your tub into a shivering sanctuary. Go all out with ambiance; throw in essential oils, play your favorite music, and set the lighting. Plus, at-home ice baths come with the additional option to go swimsuit-free. If it’s love at first freeze, you can “take the plunge” and purchase your own at-home cold tub like this one from Nordic Wave or portable options from Cold Pod.
More spas are getting hip to the ice vibe and offering cold plunges as part of their wellness experience. For a real one-two punch, look for places that have alternate hot/cold therapies. This entails a few minutes in the cold, followed by a few more minutes in the sauna, a process that has been practiced by Finnish families for centuries.
Become a member
Akin to singular-focused pilates, mediation, and hot yoga boutiques, there are some cold-plunge studios popping up that specialize solely in sub-zero submerging. Check if there’s one in your area or near your next vacation destination.
Start with baby steps
Dunk your face in a bowl of ice water. This is possibly the simplest shortcut of all time to put your beauty and wellness routine on the fast-track. The cold water releases tension and invigorates your nervous system to instantly boost mood and energy, but also tones and tightens facial skin while shrinking pores and puffiness. It’s nothing but a cheap, easy miracle!
It’s important to note that cold air and cold water affect the body in very different ways. Water takes heat away from the body 25 times faster than air. Dry cryotherapy chambers can dip well below -250°F, while the National Center for Cold Water Safety warns that sudden immersion in frozen water can be fatal. In some instances, water under 60°F can kill a person in less than a minute.
As with any new wellness routine, it’s important to start slowly and use caution. Cold plunges are something that requires building a gradual tolerance to get both your mind and body used to the sensation. Too much cold, too fast will cause more harm than good. If you want to dip your toe in to see what all the hype is about, start small by getting in the shower and blasting yourself with cold water for 30 seconds before turning the dial back to warm. If you dig it, slowly increase your exposure to the cold, working your way to frigid submersion.
According to the American Heart Association, cold plunging is not recommended for anyone with a history of heart disease or a pre-existing heart condition. Please consult your doctor before beginning a cold plunge routine.