Cold water therapy: what are the benefits and does it help?

We've got chills! Cold water therapy could transform you inside and out.


by Ben Pulsford |

What is cold water therapy?

Cold water therapy sounds a little scary, we know, but it doesn't have to be.

In fact, what if we told you that stepping into a cold shower (and grinning and bearing a few chills) every morning might be one of the most beneficial lifestyle changes you ever make? As fans of a good warm bath (a sound bath, If possible) after a day of writing about Love Island, we were sceptical and reserved judgement – until we tried it a few times.

So what is cold water therapy? What are the benefits of cold water therapy? What are the benefits of cold showers? What are the benefits of cold-water swimming? And what is the best way to start cold water therapy? Let's dive in - get it?

Also known as hydrotherapy, cold water therapy is the practice of using chilly water that's roughly 15°C (for comparison, the temperature of the average bath is 32°C to 40°C, so yes, 15°C is on the chilly side), to treat a range of health conditions. It is also used to stimulate certain physical and mental health benefits.

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Cold water therapy: a timeless practice

Believe it or not the process of using cold water for a health boost has been around for as long as, well, for as long as humans have had access to cold water - it's one of the original healing tools and the benefits are limitless. Cold water therapy, time and time again, has been proven to diminish pain in the body; it does this by causing your blood vessels to constrict, reducing the blood flow to the affected area (this is why we apply ice to wounded areas), which reduces swelling and inflammation.

Types of cold water therapy include ice baths, cold showers, cryotherapy (exposing yourself to extreme cold for brief periods of time) and cold water immersion.

Portrait of young woman in a whole body cryotherapy chamber. Female getting cryo therapy at the cosmetology clinic.

Cold water therapy is used to aid recovery after a tough workout and to fight stress. It has also been proven to reduce pain and inflammation, help the body deal with physiological stress, boost mindfulness, improve mental resilience and even boost metabolism (which can aid weight loss goals). Cold water therapy also helps you save on your hot water bill (that last one was a joke, but not really because, you know, cold water).

What is the Wim Hoff Method?

If you've read about cold water therapy before, you've probably stumbled across the Wim Hoff Method. The Wim Hof Method (and yes there is a man called Wim Hoff at the centre of this) is about reconnecting us to ourselves, to others and to nature through cold water therapy. The power of the Wim Hof Method is the combination of its three pillars - breathing, cold therapy and commitment. According to the Wim Hoff Method's official website "a committed, consistent practice including the breathing technique and cold exposure can help you unlock a host of benefits including increased energy, better sleep, reduced stress levels, heightened focus and determination, increased willpower and a stronger immune system."

The top benefits of cold water therapy

Many would argue there are endless benefits, but these are arguable the stop five...

1. Less muscle soreness

This one actually makes a lot of sense. Cold water – as uncomfortable as it can feel on the skin – constricts blood vessels. This slows blood flow, relieving muscle and swelling and soreness after a long workout, or even a long day!

2. Faster cooldown (if you're prone to getting a little overheated)

According to a 2015 super study of 19 other studies on the topic, contact with cold water cooled off overheated people twice as fast as recovery without cold water therapy.

3. Depression aid

Cold water therapy has been proven to help those suffering with depression. According to icebarrel.com, "cold showers and ice baths, for example, can create a “shock” effect on the body. This process activates electrical nerve impulses that extend from the brain to the nervous system. It has been shown to mimic similar effects as antidepressants. This is why water exposure is so prevalent in treating mood disorders and depression."

5. More energy

Even the thought of a freezing cold shower, is waking us up a bit, so this makes a lot of sense. Simply put, the cold water sends a thunderstorm of electrical impulses to your brain. These impulses jolt your system into action, increasing alertness and energy. In other words, it shocks you into action. The process also stimulates the release of endorphins, leading many to report feeling happy and optimistic following the therapy.

Brrr! What are the benefits of cold showers?

We won't make that hot water bill joke again, but it applies here, too.

According to experts, cold showers have been proven to boost endorphins, improve metabolism, improve circulation, help fight colds and infection, soothe muscle pain, ease anxiety and depression, make hair look healthier, and not to mention, wake us up in the morning. If you're one of those people that moans about coffee being the only thing that can wake you up in the morning, whack your shower temp to blue and say goodbye to those lunchtime coffee jitters.

Shower with running water against glass

What are the benefits of cold-water swimming?

Similar to a cold shower, the health benefits of cold-water swimming are vast - so next time you laugh at all those people who go swimming on Christmas Day on the tele, just remember by doing so, they are boosting their immune system, getting a natural high, improving their circulation, shedding some major calories, lowering their stress levels, and some of them are even boosting their libido - one way to warm up post-dip.

A wide headshot of a caucasian man with a beard in the sea on a summers evening. He is practicing cold water therapy in the sea which is known to have benefits for physical and mental health.

What is the best way to start cold water therapy?

Go slow, especially if you really feel the cold. Try lowering the temperature of your shower from warm to cool, or cool to cold if you're partial to those skin-shedding showers.

Consider going for a short swim in cold waters, but don't overexert yourself right away – listen to your body.

You could also try a home ice bath; ice, water and warm thoughts (we recommend coupling this with a quick mindfulness exercise).

WATCH: ICE BATH | HOW TO GET STARTED with Wim Hof Cold Water Therapy & Wim Hof Breathing | Mel Robbins

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