Cold therapy has spiked in popularity over the past year, with a 24.5 percent rise in searches, according to Spate. While cold plunges at spas or wellness centers are often the goal, not everyone can access that, and that’s where ice baths come in. The more extreme sibling to cold plunges, ice baths can easily be done at home, but experts say you need to be cautious. If you’re looking to revamp your routine in the new year by adding an ice bath to the mix—we have the expert insight you need to get started.
What is an ice bath?
An ice bath is just as it sounds—you hop in a bath filled with cold water and ice. “A lot of athletes have their own ice baths that the team physician or sets up for them,” says celebrity fitness trainer Justin Gelband. While these professionals have regulations they stand by, you don’t have that benefit at home, so Gelband notes that you have to monitor what your body can handle.
An ice bath involves filling a tub with ice, while a cold plunge is a small pool that’s kept chilly at about 40 to 50 degrees, says Gelband. Both techniques are cold water immersions, which consist of “submerging your body in cold water for a specific period of time,” says chiropractic expert and founder of Remedy Place, Dr. Jonathan Leary.
What are the benefits of an ice bath?
“There are so many clinically proven benefits,” says Dr. Leary. “A few examples include decreased inflammation, a rush of endorphins, spiked dopamine, improved sleep and mood, reduced stress, reduced aches and pains and injury recovery.” He also notes that ice baths are a great introduction to adaptation training. Teaching the body to adapt to different types of extremes helps build mental resilience and allows the mind to get comfortable while in a state of discomfort, he explains. This process will improve a person’s ability to deal with other kinds of stress.
Gelband notes that when it comes to people that are training, the biggest benefit is releasing the stress in the muscles and the pressure in your joints, ligaments and tendons. This release helps the body recover, he explains.
The science behind ice baths
A 2022 study found that “when you enter the tub, all of the blood vessels contract (vasoconstrict), therefore decreasing inflammation in the body. When exiting the tub, all of the blood vessels open back up and rush blood back to the surface (increasing circulation and strengthening the muscles in these blood vessels,” explains Dr. Leary.
“From there, brown fat is activated. Your body will shiver to warm up, and your metabolism will spike (to bring the body back to homeostasis). With the body working so hard all day (training these thermoregulatory systems) that by the end of the day, you will have the best sleep of your life,” says Dr. Leary. Another 2022 study found that cold water immersion is more likely to positively influence muscular performance, muscle soreness and perceived recovery after high-intensity exercise as compared to passive recovery.
How can someone fold ice baths and cold therapy into their routine?
Dr. Leary says there are a few ways you can implement cold therapy in your routine. “For example, creating an at-home ice bath experience if you have a bathtub,” says Dr. Leary. “For the at-home ice baths if you don’t live somewhere cold and have a tub [or tub-like item] outside. All you have to do is fill the tub and buy some ice. It’s pretty easy.”
While ice baths can be used for post workout recovery purposes, Alo Moves instructor Louis Chandler says “They can also be used at the very beginning or end of day to help reduce stress and promote better sleep.” He explains that “The goal is to stay in the cold plunge between two to five minutes.” He recommends “using breathwork techniques to help stay in for longer and keep the body relaxed throughout the duration of your ice bath.”
If you have access to a spa or wellness center, trying a cold plunge there to start out is a good idea. Dr. Leary suggests those in Los Angeles and New York City visit Remedy Place. It’s easy to get started there as it’s “the only place in the world to have a commercialized breathwork ice bath class.”
Dr. Leary says taking a cold water shower is an easy way to start dabbling with cold therapy. However, he notes that cold showers are also quite hard as the water is constantly hitting you. For an on-the-go ice experience that mimics some of the benefits of an ice bath try Serena Williams’ recent launch WILL Cool Menthol & Camphor Cooling Pain Relief Roll-On ($13).
Be cautious when trying an ice bath at home
Gelband emphasizes the need for caution when making your own ice bath to avoid overdoing it. “A lot of people don’t take care of that. They’re like, ‘I’m just going to put five bags of ice in the water, and then I’m going to put myself into the ice bath,’ but they don’t realize that you can get yourself really sick.” He warns that you could “really damage your body.” Due to this, he notes that he personally prefers a cold pool at a facility that’s regulated.
“I say this with love: If people are just going to abuse it and not understand what their body can handle, they can cause stress on the body,” says Gelband. “If you’re going into cold water, make sure that you know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and you’re not forcing yourself into something.” He suggests building up by trying one minute, then gradually increasing the time in the tub.
“There are so many things going on right now out there. Everybody is taking so many different pills and so many different injections because everybody wants a quick fix, but there’s no quick fix,” says Gelband. “Even an ice bath isn’t a quick fix. Yeah, of course, it works, but you need to give yourself the chance to recover in order for it to work.” Gelband doesn’t advise against ice baths—he just urges people to “do it with caution and do it in moderation and do it so that it’s working for you.”