For many of us, the idea of voluntarily subjecting ourselves to ice-cold water for more than a few seconds is akin to medieval torture. We’ve all heard rumours for years now about the supposed benefits of cold water exposure on the human body, but can something so awful really be so good?
What is cold water exposure?
Cold water exposure now has a growing base of die-hard supporters that will swear blind by its supposed wondrous effects, but before we dive in (pun intended) let’s begin with the nuts and bolts.
Also referred to as cold water therapy, freely exposing oneself to cold water is a practice that has been around for thousands of years with the Ancient Egyptians some of the first to understand the benefits. Things kicked on in the 18th Century when two physicians, John Floyer and James Currie, began experimenting with cold water to treat both bodily and mental diseases.
Today, while there are very few set guidelines around cold water exposure, most would agree that the water used should be below 15°C and that spending anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes is enough time to experience the health benefits.
How do I do it?
There are several different methods that you can do to get the benefits of cold water exposure.
1. In the shower - Perhaps the most obvious place to start. Instead of standing for ages with near scalding water cascading down you, try ending your shower with 30 seconds to 1 minute of ice-cold water. If you’ve just had a hot shower, your body temperature will be high and it’s probably the easiest introduction to the shock of cold water. Alternatively, start with the cold, which is an excellent option if you’ve just finished exercising, before ending with hot water.
2. Ice bath - If you’re ready to step things up, fill your bath with cold water and add ice. Next comes the difficult part. Slowly lower yourself into the frosty water and try to remain there for a couple of minutes. Your body will no doubt be screaming at you to get out, but once you get past the initial discomfort, you’d be surprised how the body can adjust.
3. Cold water swimming - For those who are really dedicated, a cold water swim is an excellent way to not only get some exercise but also get the benefits from cold water exposure. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the ocean, a lake, a river or even a pool, as long as the water temperature is low enough.
Is it dangerous?
Cold water therapy comes with numerous health benefits, which we’re coming to shortly, but it’s also not an activity that you should take lightly.
Going into cold water affects your blood pressure, heart rate, and circulation, usually in a positive way, but it can also cause serious cardiac stress. Anybody who is elderly or who suffers from heart issues should consult their doctor before starting cold water exposure - particularly in the case of cold water swimming where deaths have certainly occurred in the past.
Most of the issues come with cold water swimming and often it’s a case of people staying in for longer than they should or not warming up properly when they get out. If you’re planning on heading in, it’s always best to have an observer with you and to keep the immersions brief - at least while your body is getting used to it.
What are the benefits?
Now that we’ve got the important disclaimer out of the way, let’s focus on the benefits of cold water exposure.
Helps with muscle soreness
It’s a well-known professional sporting technique to use cold water after intense physical exertions, and there’s a very good reason for it. Exposure to cold water causes your blood vessels to constrict which in turn reduces blood flow to the area and reduces pain. The same principle applies when you place a frozen bag of peas on a swollen part of the body.
Speeding up a cooldown
It may seem like common sense, but cold water dramatically speeds up how quickly the body can cool itself down. Whether it’s after exercise or even because of an illness, exposing as much of the body as possible to water below 10 C can cool you down at twice the normal speed.
Helps with depression
Evidence into combating anxiety and depression with cold water therapy is still in its infancy, but positive findings are emerging. One study focused on a 24-year-old woman who had suffered depression since she was 17. She began a trial program of cold water exposure and was soon able to come off her medication, a situation that remained the same a year later when the study followed up with the patient.
Boost your immune system
Another area that we believe is helped with cold water exposure but certainly needs further research is the effect the cold can have on our immune system. One groundbreaking Dutch study found that participants who did breathing exercises in conjunction with cold water therapy were able to voluntarily, but unknowingly, boost their immune system and experienced far fewer symptoms when exposed to a bacterial infection than a control group.
The bottom line
Cold water exposure should not be viewed as a miracle cure, but in conjunction with other techniques, such as meditation, breathing exercises as well as a generally healthy lifestyle, its effects can be dramatic.
Many will point to the lack of long-term data and that is certainly something that needs to be addressed, but as anybody who has done a couple of minutes in cold water and then warmed up properly will testify, the effect on the body can be enormous. With your body buzzing and the brain fully alert thanks to the cold water, it’s a wonder why more people aren’t trying it.