Cold water therapy guide: it's benefits, risks and tips from top experts
Millions of people worldwide are immersing themselves in cold water for their health. Curious? Read on to discover the physical and mental benefits of cold water therapy with insights from three experts.
For most of us, jumping into cold water isn’t that appealing. It’s cold (obviously), uncomfortable, and goes against nearly all our natural instincts. However, over the last few years, millions of people have regularly covered themselves in near-freezing water.
It’s known as cold water therapy, and athletes have been doing it for decades. But why are ordinary people now implementing it into their daily routines? The theory is that regularly exposing yourself to cold water can reap both physical and mental rewards.
But, if you want to try it out for yourself, the thought of starting can be daunting. To help you, The Recommended has compiled a comprehensive guide to the benefits, how to get started, and the risks you need to look out for. We’ve also enlisted three experts to explain why millions swear by the unorthodox wellness routine.
What is cold water therapy?
Cold water therapy, also known as cold water immersion, is the practice of covering yourself in cold water for a short period of time. The water is usually between 5-15 degrees celsius, with some people even venturing below this! There are plenty of ways people do this: in the shower, lying in an icy bath, or even swimming in a cold lake or river.
It can be practised by anyone looking for a natural and effective way to promote recovery and improve overall health. It has various benefits, including inflammation reduction, improved circulation, boosted immune system, and relief of sore muscles. It has become adopted by professional athletes and is why we see many of them in ice baths following training or a race.
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Dutch wellness expert, Wim Hof, known as the Ice Man, is one of the most famous advocates of cold water immersion and has encouraged people worldwide to practise it. But cold water doesn’t come without risks, so it’s important to know how to do it properly and ensure you stay safe when exposing yourself to it.
Our cold water therapy experts
To help us learn more about cold water therapy, we’ve interviewed three experts to shed some light on cold water therapy. They have decades of experience and have shared their knowledge of all things cold water with us.
Our first expert is doctor, dermatologist, and wellness specialist Dr Laura Geigaite who currently works as an adviser to companies in the health sector. She graduated from the Lithuanian University of health sciences, so as well as practising cold water therapy herself, she knows all the science behind it! Laura also works for the CBD company Glowbar and shared her extensive knowledge of cold water therapy with us.
Our next expert is healing practitioner Antonia Harman. She also spoke to us about cold water therapy and is particularly knowledgeable about the mental health benefits it can provide. She works full-time as a healer and offers her services online for her company Divine Empowerment.
Our final expert is cold water therapist and breathing tutor Michel Miscary, who has over ten years of experience in cold water immersion. He has hosted talks for beginners to understand the benefits of cold water, helping them start their journey into the world of cold water therapy. He works full-time tutoring clients on self-help practises and fitness.
Benefits of cold water therapy
The reason that the majority of people start cold water therapy is because of its advertised benefits. Our experts advised us on these and why you should begin to immerse yourself.
It’s not just athletes that can benefit from cold water therapy, but everyone can gain from covering themselves in chilly water for a few minutes each day. Whether promoting muscle repair or boosting circulation, a cold water dip has many physical advantages.
- Reduced inflammation: Dr Geigaite points out that “cold water therapy helps to reduce inflammation in the body. I have felt this personally when practising cold water therapy, and for most people, pain and swelling are alleviated when emerging themselves in cold water.” This works because cold water immersion causes vasoconstriction, the narrowing/squeezing blood vessels in the muscles. This constriction of the vessels helps reduce swelling, inflammation, and muscle pain.
- Better circulation: The science behind cold water immersion improving circulation is that it improves blood flow by causing vasoconstriction (the restricting of blood vessels) and vasodilation (the opening of blood vessels). This alternation helps to increase circulation and provides more oxygen throughout the body. Dr Geigaite added that “cold water therapy improves blood circulation. The increased oxygen then helps recovery and aids brain health by keeping it active. White blood cells are also transported faster when circulation is better, and this helps wounds and injuries heal faster.”
- Boosted immune system: Michael Miscary explained that exposure to cold water could help increase the production of white blood cells. He said: “A great benefit of cold water is that when you come into contact with it, your white blood cell production is increased. This is important because it can boost how fast your body reacts to infection and therefore boosts your immune system, lowering your risk of illness and disease.”
- Faster recovery after exercise: Dr Geigaite told us that faster recovery for muscles and tissues after exercise results from improved circulation and a decrease in inflammation (as spoken about previously). She said: “Improved recovery after exercise is another benefit of cold water therapy. Cold water can help reduce muscle soreness and aid in the recovery process after exercise.”
Mental health benefits
Cold water therapy isn’t just good for the body but also the mind. It is especially helpful for people suffering from a low mood or those who want to challenge themselves daily. Our experts helped explain how incorporating cold water immersion into your routine can benefit you mentally.
- Improved mood: When you are immersed in cold water, it releases endorphins, which are natural chemicals that the brain releases for happiness. The rise in endorphins will boost your mood and help trigger a feeling of overall wellness. An increase in endorphins can be particularly helpful for people struggling with depression and other mood disorders.
- Reduced stress and anxiety: Michael Miscary highlighted the calming and stress-reducing effects of cold water therapy, which triggers endorphin release and shifts focus to bodily instincts. This leads to an "overwhelming sense of calm" after immersion, benefiting those with anxiety or depression. Antonia Harman added that cold water therapy stills the mind, reduces anxiety, and helps conquer challenges, despite the initial discomfort.
- Increased resilience: Exposure to cold water can help build resilience because the body adapts to become uncomfortable. You also have to be disciplined to expose yourself to cold temperatures constantly. Boosted resilience was one of the advantages Antonia Harman spoke about, and she encouraged people to give it a go, saying, “be brave! The braver you are in life, the more opportunities find you. Fortune favours the brave; one act of bravery in the morning sets you up for the day and stops you from sweating the small stuff so much. Once you have conquered this, you will see other challenges as easier to overcome, so your resilience is enhanced.”
Cold water therapy risks and precautions
Before practising cold water therapy, you should be aware of the risks. If you ever feel you are in danger of the following risks, exit the cold water or turn off the shower. Always have a towel at the ready and a dry change of clothes. A hot drink is also a good idea if you become too cold after the immersion.
- Entering shock: You can experience cold water shock because of the dramatic temperature change when entering cold water. This change can cause panic attacks and also drop your blood pressure. Taking deep breaths and exiting the water is essential if you can’t control your breathing within 30 seconds.
- Hypothermia: You can enter a hypothermic state if you are in cold water for too long. This is dangerous and is where your body’s core temperature drops below normal. It is potentially life-threatening, so keep your towel and hot drink nearby. If you think you or a friend might have hypothermia call 111 or 999.
- Risk of drowning: The risk of shock makes drowning more likely, as cold water can cause muscle stiffness and panic. Short breaths can also make it harder to swim. Wherever you are practising cold water therapy, you should try and be with a partner who can look out for you. Also, when starting, it’s important not to enter deep water.
- Prior medical conditions: If you suffer from medical conditions, you should ask your doctor whether cold water immersion would be safe for you. In some instances, cold water immersion can be dangerous. People who suffer from conditions such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and pregnant people are groups who should avoid cold water therapy.
How to get started: 5 tips for starting cold water therapy
Our experts have provided their top tips for getting started with cold water therapy. They share their insight into how their clients, and themselves, have incorporated cold water therapy into their routines.
Michael Miscary leads groups through cold water therapy and advises them to start slowly; he says: “The hardest part of cold water therapy is the first step into the water. You will feel shivers up your body, and your instinct reaction is to give up or step back. It sounds very cliche, but it is literally just one step at a time.”
Dr Geigaite practises cold water therapy herself, so she knows how hard it can be to start. One of her top tips was also to start slowly. She said: “Cold water therapy is an ideal regime for beginners, and as a doctor and having tried it myself, I would recommend it to anyone. You should begin by gradually exposing the body to cold water.”
Tweak your showering habits
Antonia Harman and Dr Geigaite both advised using a shower to start getting used to cold water therapy. Antonia said: “The easiest way to get started with cold water exposure is to simply turn the shower to cold for the last 15 seconds.
“We shower anyway, so adding this step to your routine is easy. Once you have concurred 15 seconds, increase the time incrementally up to 2 minutes. As with everything in life, start small and build from there, don’t immediately try to shower for two minutes; two minutes will feel like an eternity.
“15 seconds daily is enough until you acclimatise and build tolerance. If 15 seconds at the end of your shower feels too much, start by simply splashing your face with cold water. Once you are comfortable being uncomfortable, move on to the shower exercise.”
Dr Geigaite agreed and added: “I usually advise clients to start with a cool shower and gradually decrease the temperature over time rather than jumping straight into a cold shower or ice bath.”
Set a timer
Dr Geigaite said: “Setting a timer is another tip I’ve found useful. It is important to set a timer before indulging in cold water therapy, and advisable to start with short exposure times, such as 30 seconds to 1 minute, and gradually increase the duration as the body adapts.
Focus on your breathing
Dr Geigaite also pointed out that breathing is one of the most important things to remember when exposing yourself to cold water. She said to “focus on your breathing because cold water therapy requires a person to stay calm during the process, so take slow and deep breaths. You want to reduce the shock of cold water exposure and reduce panicking when first getting used to cold water.”
Michael Miscary agrees, saying: “When you get in the water, there is no set way to get used to it. Breathing slowly and controlled is important, but apart from that, scream, shout, swear- whatever makes it easier for you.”
Michael’s retreats centre around lake and river cold water immersion, and he advises everyone to stay safe, particularly when outdoor swimming in the wild. He says to have a partner nearby when dealing with open water and not swim out of your depth.
Dr Geigaite added that “one point to remember is that cold water therapy may not be suitable for everyone, especially pregnant people and those with certain medical conditions. If you feel uncomfortable, have numbness, or tingling, exit the water immediately.”
Want more guidance and tips on well-being and fitness? Check out our wellness and fitness sections, with guides including yoga vs pilates, posture tips, and why skipping should be your new favourite workout.
Finn Byrne is a Digital Writer for Immediate Media. He works across several brands including The Recommended, RadioTimes.com, MadeforMums and BBC Gardeners’ World. Finn has previously written for publications including MyLondon, The Mirror, The Express, and The Star. When not writing Finn enjoys spending time on the football pitch and getting stuck into a book.