The benefits of ice baths and cold immersion


Em Batger

Cold water immersion as a health and well-being practice has been around for centuries. 

Footy fans like myself often see the post match television footage inside the change room where the players are plunging themselves into icy bathtubs as part of their recovery.   

As we creep closer and closer to winter the idea of an ice bath is far from appealing, however you may be swayed to test the waters when you realise the plethora of benefits that an icy exposure can bring. 

Let’s begin with the physical. Improved recovery and reduction in muscle soreness. When you expose your body to cold water there is a vasoconstriction of blood vessels. More blood is pushed towards the internal organs which fills the blood with oxygen and many other important nutrients. When you get out of the water the blood vessels dilate allowing the nutrient dense, oxygenated blood to flow out into the tissues. This process also flushes any stagnant metabolic waste from the muscles that if left can inhibit recovery.  

There is evidence to suggest that this process can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (you know that stiff, sore feeling that you get 24-48 hours after exercise) and may also be beneficial in reducing inflammation after physical activity. We can already see why ice baths are common practice for an elite athlete.   

There is then the mental benefits. I sometimes think of an ice bath as forced meditation. It’s very difficult to think about anything else during a cold plunge; your mind is immediately focused only on the present and how unbelievably cold it is. This itself is quite refreshing, as rarely in a day are our minds completely clear.  

Regular exposure to cold temperatures can boost your mood via the release of dopamine. We like dopamine, it’s our feel good hormone and it’s suggested that these levels remain elevated for several hours after cold exposure.  

Further to this challenging your body to withstand something like an ice bath can build resilience to stress. When you are initially exposed to something so cold your body will activate its natural ‘fight or fight’ system and there would be a spike in hormones like adrenalin, cortisol and noradrenaline. The body is preparing itself for a fight, it’s alert and the senses are heightened. Over time if you regularly expose yourself to the same cold temperatures your body will begin to adapt; the reaction will not be as acute. Your body is not only learning to physically cope with a stressful environment but you are also building mental resilience.  

We don’t all have access to a proper ice bath setup but there is a very simple way to begin to incorporate cold exposure into your daily life. Next time you are in the shower, turn only the cold tap on. Stand there and see how long you can tolerate it. You may only last 20 seconds to start with. Each day do the same thing, you will very quickly develop a tolerance. This is one of the easiest wellbeing hacks that anyone can try and you will be surprised at just how good you feel after! 

Em Batger

Please note: Em's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic, please consult your healthcare professional.

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