Benefits of Ice Baths

Photo of woman taking a cold plunge in an ice bath

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Disclaimer: I’m not a medical or fitness professional and this doesn’t constitute medical or health advice in any way. Please consult your health professional before taking on an activity you’re not sure of considering your health and fitness level.

Ice baths, also known as cold water immersion, have been growing in popularity over the past few years. More and more athletes and fitness enthusiasts are taking the polar plunge to try to gain physical and mental benefits. 

Andrew Huberman talks about the benefits of cold exposure and Tim Ferriss talks about the benefits of ice baths using the Cold Pod.

So do ice baths really deliver on their purported healthy promises? Let’s take a closer look at the science and potential pros and cons.

What Are Ice Baths? 

An ice bath essentially involves submerging part or all of your body into very cold water for a period of time. 

They are different than cryotherapy chambers which expose the body to freezing air for around 3 minutes. Ice baths generally are done for 5–15 minutes. 

The water needs to be cold enough, usually from 50 to 59°F, to elicit physiological responses in the body. Ice is often added to help achieve these cold temperatures rapidly.

The Concept Behind Ice Bath Benefits 

Plunging into an ice bath triggers the mammalian diving reflex in the body. This reflex is designed to help mammals conserve oxygen while underwater. 

When the extremely cold water hits the skin, blood vessels near the surface constrict in an attempt to keep organs warm by redirecting blood flow. As metabolism slows, oxygen requirements also lower. It’s the cool-down phase activated.

This cold shock causes additional responses like increased heart rate and deeper breathing at first. When the body adjusts, heart rate declines as does muscle oxygen use and blood circulates mostly to vital organs like the heart and brain. 

Ice bath proponents believe activating these intense physiological responses regularly can support positive training adaptations.

Potential Benefits of Ice Baths 

So what are the major touted ice bath benefits? Here are some of the ways they are thought to help both athletes and regular stressed-out folks:

Speeds exercise recovery 

The cold temperatures constrict blood vessels and help flush waste products out of tired muscles. This includes lactic acid buildup. This aids muscle recovery after intense workouts and may lessen soreness and inflammation. The compression caused by the cold also helps reduce swelling and edema.

Supports immunity 

The cold exposure during and after ice baths activates the lymphatic system which supports immune function. The lymphatic system clears toxins and waste, so giving it a nudge may help keep immunity higher year-round.

Elevates mood 

Yes, it seems counterintuitive. But quick cold exposure releases endorphins and other mood-boosting chemicals. The novelty factor can lead to an exhilarating rush. Ice baths have even been linked to reducing symptoms of depression.

Increases willpower 

Something just happens in the mind when people endure short uncomfortable situations like ice baths. The grit needed gives most participants a sense of confidence and self-efficacy. This mental toughness gained from cold therapy carries over to support success factors like exercise ability, focus, and determination.

Promotes weight loss 

The cold triggers deeper and faster breathing needed to generate internal warmth. Like exercise, this burns additional calories. Regular ice baths cause the activation of brown adipose tissue which helps break down blood glucose and body fat.

Improves circulation 

The initial parts of an ice bath make blood rush to the heart to protect core organs, while vessels in arms and legs constrict. But tissues release chemicals that force blood to the extremities to keep them from dangerous temperatures. So blood moves in and out rapidly, supporting overall circulatory health.

Potential Risks of Ice Baths 

Of course, along with benefits can come some risks and unwanted side effects, including:


Water that is too cold for too long can cause core body temperature to drop dangerously low. Signs of hypothermia include intense shivering, confusion, sleepiness, trouble speaking, and even unconsciousness or irregular heartbeats. Care must be taken to avoid overexposure.

Asthma complications 

The sudden temperature change and hyperventilation involved can trigger issues for those with respiratory conditions like asthma. Spasms and shortness of breath have been reported. Check with a doctor first if you have lung problems.

Infection risk 

Shared ice baths and other cold plunge setups have the potential to harbor bacteria and viruses. Without proper cleaning protocols, these could lead to unpleasant parasitic, fungal, or gastrointestinal infections. Maintaining hygiene standards minimizes this problem.

Unwanted vasoconstriction 

Yes, temporarily constricting blood flow to extremities drives blood back to the core. But some people experience longer bouts of numbness, tingling, and reduced circulation from frequent ice baths. This indicates vascular aspects that may need medical support.

Increased inflammation 

While many people have the opposite effect, some respond to abrupt cold exposure with a temporary uptick in swelling and inflammatory chemicals as the body tries to protect and warm itself. So ice baths may irritate rather than calm existing issues for some.

In Summary

Image of The Cold Pod
Image credit: The Cold Pod

The bottom line is that plunging into an ice bath can provide physical and mental rewards. But no practice is one size fits all. Be smart, go slowly with exposure times, allow the body to adapt between sessions if continuing them, and consult a doctor if having concerning symptoms. Used judiciously, ice baths can be an intense addition that supports fitness, competitive performance, and general health.

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