Cold Water Exposure: Benefits, Risks, and Techniques

Cold water exposure is espoused by athletes, celebrities, and holistic health practitioners alike thanks to its many purported health benefits. But could a cold shower every day or a weekly swim in a cold lake really help us to stay fit and healthy? And what’s the best way to do it? Read on as we dive in (pun intended). 

What is Cold Water Exposure?

Also known as cold water hydrotherapy, cold water exposure, or cryotherapy, this technique involves exposing the body to very cold water—usually around 59°F (15°C). To put that in perspective, compare it with the average temperature of swimming pools—78-82°F (26-28°C), or a hot shower—112°F (44°C). Cold water therapy is hardly a new phenomenon, despite its recent resurgence in popularity. It has been around for thousands of years—Hippocrates himself wrote of the benefits of cold baths in the 5th century BCE.  

Cold Water Exposure Benefits

Cold water therapy has a huge number of converts, and for good reason. Compared to other popular holistic therapies, cold water exposure is quick, cheap, and easy, making it accessible for all. 

Quicker Recovery 

A number of small studies—plus plenty of anecdotal evidence from athletes—have shown that cold water therapy after intense exercise could help to reduce muscle soreness. This could be because of the way blood vessels contract when exposed to low temperatures—like putting ice on an injury to reduce swelling. If you’re overheated after exercise, immersion in cold water is also the most effective way to cool down. 

Mental Health Benefits

Could cryotherapy help to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression? Although scientific studies are lacking, a number of case studies imply that it could. At the very least,  the self-control and strength of mind needed to put your body into ice-cold water boost self-esteem. 

Immunity Boost

There’s growing evidence that regular cold water exposure could help to strengthen the body’s immune response. Although scientists aren’t sure exactly why this is, one theory is that the body builds up a kind of resistance to stress over time. 

How to Practice Cold Water ExposureWild swimming - one method of cold water exposure

While the theory of cold water expose is pretty simple, there are many ways to go about it. Some people swear by ice baths, other by cold showers. If you live in a colder climate, wild swimming in lakes and rivers can also have the same effect. However, it is important to both to acclimatize yourself and follow simple safety precautions.  

Staying Safe in Cold Water

If you are not used to immersing yourself in freezing water, don’t go leaping into that lake just yet. Cold water exposure affects circulation, blood pressure, and heart rate. While this contributes to its many purported benefits, it can also cause cardiac stress if the body isn’t used to it. A few people have even died from heart attacks as a result of swimming in cold open water, so this really is serious. 

1. Ask a Doctor

If you have any history of poor circulation, heart disease, or high blood pressure, talk to a medical practitioner before beginning cold water therapy, and always follow their advice. 

2. Acclimatize Yourself 

It’s always a good idea to start slowly and acclimatize your body gradually to avoid shocks. You can do this by gradually turning down the heat on the shower until it is cold, and staying in for longer periods until you no longer get the “shock” reaction of gasping. Then start experimenting with colder temperatures and longer durations. 

3. Keep It Quick

The benefits of cold water exposure start to kick in after just a few minutes and don’t increase after that time. Keep immersions to no more than 5 minutes when you’re starting out. 

4. Warm Yourself Up Quickly

The most important part of staying safe in cold water is to warm up quickly afterward, especially if you’re swimming outside. Change into warm, dry clothes as quickly as possible, then eat a small snack and drink a hot beverage. This will help to bring the body’s core temperature back up. 

5. Have a Buddy for Wild Swimming

Hypothermia can rapidly affect rational thinking and lead to confusion, which can get dangerous fast. If you’re swimming in cold open water, have someone on land keeping an eye on you in case things so south. 

6. Avoid Cold to Hot 

While going straight from warm temperatures to cold—for example after a workout or a sauna—can be beneficial and enjoyable, you should avoid going from very cold to very hot water quickly. The change in blood flow could cause you to pass out, so save the hot shower until you’ve brought your body temperature back up. 


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