If you’ve ever sprained your wrist, twisted your ankle, or suffered any other sort of sports-related injury, then you’re quite familiar with the quick application of a bag of ice (i.e. “cold therapy).
Cold therapy helps reduce swelling and inflammation immediately after trauma, but its benefits don’t just stop in the aftermath of injury.
Let’s discuss the myriad benefits of cold therapy, and how it can improve your performance, recovery, and results.
But first, let’s get a more “formalized” definition/understanding of what cold therapy is.
What is Cold Therapy?
Cold therapy is the practice of using water that’s around 59°F (15°C) to promote health benefits and/or improve assorted health conditions It’s also known as cold water therapy or hydrotherapy.
Cold water therapy has been practiced for centuries, but in recent times it has gained popularity, especially among athletes and biohackers in the forms of ice baths, cold showers, and cryotherapy sessions.
What Are the Benefits of Cold Therapy?
Improves Recovery & Reduce Muscle Damage
A number of strategies have been explored over the years to help athletes recover faster. After all, the quicker your muscles and CNS recover, the more frequently you can train, and thus accelerate your results.
Several studies have also found that cold therapy can improve muscle recovery and decrease exercise-induced muscle damage.[1,2] This happens via improving circulation as well as reducing markers of inflammation, muscle damage, and soreness.
Supports Cardiovascular Health
Transitioning from a cold environment to a warmer one (such as getting out of a cold shower or ice bath) causes an increase in blood flow throughout the body.
Greater circulation delivers oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to your brain, muscles, and organs which help keep them energized and performing optimally. As we just mentioned above, this will also support exercise recovery.
But, there’s more.
Better blood flow also helps remove toxins from the body and metabolic waste that is generated as a result of exercise and energy metabolism.
Subcutaneous fat is divided into two types -- white fat and brown fat.
While we tend to think that any body fat is bad, brown fat can actually be helpful. It is more metabolically active than white fat.
Brown fat is packed with mitochondria, and when activated, it generates heat without shivering -- thermogenesis.
Burning brown fat boosts metabolism and it has been identified as a target for the treatment of obesity!
What’s more, brown fat is activated by exposure to cold environments, such as cold showers or ice baths.
Taking a cold shower or ice bath plunge a few times per week may help boost metabolism and energy expenditure, helping you stay on track with your weight loss goals or transformation challenge.
Improves Mood & Feelings of Well-Being
Stress is something we all face at some point or another.
While there are a number of things you can do to help reduce stress and improve mood, such as exercise, meditation, or supplements like RELAX, cold water therapy may also be of use.
Cold showers can stimulate a rush of endorphins (feel good chemicals in the brain), improving mood and feelings of well-being. In fact, research has found that taking a cold shower 2-3 times per week may help for up to 5 minutes, 2 to 3 times per week, and was shown to help relieve symptoms of depression and support mental health.
Supports Immune Function
Cryotherapy can increase the number of white blood cells -- the main “soldiers” of the immune system that attacks nefarious microbes that seek to invade and infect our bodies. In fact, some research notes an association between individuals who take cold showers and taking less sick days at work.
To top it off, cold water therapy also has been found to improve sleep, something the vast majority of us do not get enough of.
Cold water treatments, such as whole-body cryotherapy, are known to promote a more regular circadian rhythm and improve the quality of sleep, which results in less feelings of tiredness and greater energy, motivation and focus!
How to Add Cold Water Therapy to Your Routine
To reap the benefits of cold showers, you really don’t have to have any special equipment. Simply turn the shower handle to COLD and see how long you can last.
If you’re new to cold water exposure, it’s typically a good idea to start with a short amount of time (such as 20-30 seconds) and gradually increase how long you endure it.
Another option is to alternate between hot and cold showers (also known as contrast showers).
Begin with a warm/hot shower for a few minutes, then rotate the shower dial to COLD for a predetermined amount of time, and then finish off with WARM.
Some other ideas you can experiment with when you want to dabble with cold therapy include:
- Ice baths
- Whole-body cryotherapy
- Ice packs (yep, the same stuff you used when you twisted your ankle when you were a kid)
- Rose C, Edwards KM, Siegler J, Graham K, Caillaud C. Whole-body Cryotherapy as a Recovery Technique after Exercise: A Review of the Literature. Int J Sports Med. 2017 Dec;38(14):1049-1060. doi: 10.1055/s-0043-114861. Epub 2017 Nov 21. PMID: 29161748.
- Qu C, Wu Z, Xu M, Qin F, Dong Y, Wang Z, Zhao J. Cryotherapy Models and Timing-Sequence Recovery of Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage in Middle- and Long-Distance Runners. J Athl Train. 2020 Apr;55(4):329-335. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-529-18. Epub 2020 Mar 11. PMID: 32160058; PMCID: PMC7164561.
- Buijze GA, Sierevelt IN, van der Heijden BC, Dijkgraaf MG, Frings-Dresen MH. The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS One. 2016 Sep 15;11(9):e0161749. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0161749. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2018 Aug 2;13(8):e0201978. PMID: 27631616; PMCID: PMC5025014.