I don’t love using the word ‘hate,’ so when I do use it, you know I have big feelings about something. Thus, when I say I hate being cold, I hate being cold.
I’m hard-pressed to turn the dial on the shower below steaming hot, it’s a challenge to get me into a non-heated pool or take a dip in the ocean anytime except a hot summer day and I’m always donning more layers and fuzzy socks than what the weather dictates.
Cold plunges are hot right now
As I scrolled through Instagram a few weeks back, I couldn’t help but notice dozens of influencers, celebrities, people in my own network and of course, one of my favorite Peloton instructors, dipping into frigid ice baths as part of a morning routine or alongside friends in both backyards and gyms and praising the impact of “cold therapy.”
And, it’s not just on my feed. It’s gone viral. There are nearly one million posts on Instagram boasting the #coldplunge tag, while TikTok’s #coldplunge videos have more than 900 million views.
After watching way too many of these videos, I needed to know more. What were these people doing — and why?
Let’s dive in
As with many viral health, wellness and fitness trends, cold plunges aren’t a new practice. Research suggests that ancient Romans used cold plunging as a tradition, and more recent practitioners like professional athletes and motivational speaker and breathwork guru Wim Hof have been cold plunging for decades.
While there’s a variety of ways to practice cold plunging, at its core, the practice involves immersing yourself in a body of cold water for health benefits, including pain relief, muscle recovery and stress reduction. Water temperatures typically range from 38 to 60℉, and the practice can be performed in a variety of settings, including indoor or outdoor tubs, specially designed tanks or plunge barrels, health spas and even cold bodies of water.
Since the practice has gone viral, there has to be a reason why…right?
“Cold exposure (such as cold showers, cold water immersion or whole-body cryotherapy) produces immediate and long-term benefits, making this an attractive option for people looking to boost their health,” said Dr. Anant Vinjamoori, M.D. and Chief Medical Officer at Modern Age.
On the physical level, cold water immersion can reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness, especially compared to simply resting after a killer workout. It has also been proven to help alleviate inflammation and reduce joint pain. These effects aren’t just for here and now — they are lasting.
“There is some evidence that cold exposure may reduce systemic inflammation, which is known to be a driver of many chronic diseases in the long term,” continued Vinjamoori.
Mental health benefits
Researchers are still studying the mental benefits of cold plunges, but frequent cold plungers note that they often sleep better and can manage stress better outside of the frigid dip. Others praise the mood-boosting benefits, crediting cold plunges as a form of mental health treatment.
“A cold plunge causes a major surge in the production of neurotransmitters, like epinephrine and dopamine, making people immediately feel a sense of rejuvenation and increased energy,” explained Vinjamoori.
Studies even suggest that cold water immersion can increase dopamine levels by up to 250%, which is linked to potential decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms.
And, while you may read this and wonder how something so stressful can bring on these benefits, you’re not the only one. However, contrary to popular belief, there are some good stressors, known as hormetic stressors.
Cold plunging falls neatly into this category. Hormetic stressors offer short, intermittent bursts of stress that trigger a wave of cellular processes that enhance overall health, slow aging and make you more resilient to future stress, both physically and mentally. When you spend time in cold water, your cells are prompted to repair themselves and build future stress resilience.
So, with all of this in mind (and despite my immense dislike of being cold), I found myself testing out a cold plunge, fully submerged in 41℉ water up to my shoulders.
Taking the plunge
While there are plenty of ways to test out cold plunges, I opted for a communal setting for accountability and safety purposes, heading to a nearby studio specializing in cold plunges, sauna, yoga and breathwork.
The 75-minute “Breathe + Plunge” class kicked off with instructor-led holotropic breathing, designed to energize your body and clear your mind from stress and thoughts, thus preparing you for the forthcoming cold plunge. While I took my inhales and exhales, engaging in this “lung workout,” I felt myself noticeably both relax and get excited about what was next on the agenda.
Time to chill
Following the breathwork and savasana experience, the instructor led us into the plunge room, where there were side-by-side cold plunge and hot pools. She pulled the newbies aside (myself included) to explain the process and what to expect. We were going to be seated in the pool, sporting neoprene booties (recommended for first-timers or for anyone who may have circulation issues) with our hands above the water for three minutes. She explained that we might initially hyperventilate as a shock response, but we were encouraged to return to the breath (this time, deep inhales and exhales through the nose) to calm our physical body down and pave the way for our body to exit its natural “fight or flight” reaction.
When we approached the pool, I followed the instructions, but immediately found myself backing out as my belly hit the icy water. The “fight or flight” response was real, and I was filled with panic. I explained to the instructor and other newbies that I couldn’t do it, but after some verbal reassurance, I regained the courage to get back into the pool, sitting about 85% of the way down (progress is progress!). Throughout the three minutes, the instructor kept her hands on my shoulders and reminded us that we could do hard things. I repeated her mantras in my head and focused solely on my controlled inhales and exhales.
Just like that, the three minutes were up!
After receiving the green light, I headed straight into the hot pool (akin to a jacuzzi) to warm up for a few minutes before completing another, shorter plunge. While I was still nervous, I felt more confident about tackling a minute after surviving triple the duration before.
On my second plunge, I sat down with more confidence and fully submerged myself. Similar to the first plunge, the instructor’s physical touch helped reinforce the idea of safety, as did my focus on steady breathing.
After the second plunge, I exited the pool (the instructor recommended ending with cold versus hot) and toweled off, noticing how instantaneously I felt the effects of the plunge. I felt energized and invigorated with a new pep in my step that I hadn’t felt in a few weeks. Moreover, I felt empowered. I pushed through a fear and physical discomfort and was able to breathe through it. I felt strong and resilient, particularly after almost bailing out during the first few seconds.
@shell.bee.healing 1000% going to keep incorporating Cold Plunges as part of my daily routine #coldplunge #coldtherapy #coldtherapybenefits #coldplungebenefits #healingjourney #mentalhealth #mentaltoughness #bettersleep #moreenergy #mentalclarity ♬ Say It (Illenium Remix) – ILLENIUM / Flume / Tove Lo
Cold plunges: Worth it?
While I initially was skeptical of the practice and while the scientific research around health benefits is still in the early stages, I was pleasantly surprised of how good my body and mind felt after cold plunging. The next day, I was shocked to find that I wasn’t sore from the previous morning’s challenging lower body workout too.
With that said, I am undecided if I would go out of my way to seek out a plunge again given the pain of the first few minutes and the ensuing mental panic. For now, I plan to cheer on the individuals that can power through a three-minute stint in cold water.
But, never say never. I’m open to testing it out again.
Should you cold plunge?
Cold plunging is low risk for most people, but do your due diligence before stripping down and dunking in. If you suffer from a heart condition, steer clear of the cold water, as this can place too big of a burden on the body. If you suffer from poor circulation or conditions like Reynaud’s disease, check in with your doctor and exercise caution.
As with most health and wellness practices, start slow with cold plunging to let your body acclimate. Start with water on the warmer end of the spectrum and with less time on the clock, building up as you progress. More is not necessarily better with cold plunging, so a few minutes will still give you the same benefits.
Lastly, if you’re anything like me, I highly recommend plunging in a group setting. I felt safe and supported in a communal environment. And, if we’re being honest, I wouldn’t have gone all the way in if I was by myself.
If you’re looking for a way to recover quickly and build up stress tolerance, I recommend giving it a test dip and seeing how you respond!
Are you ready to take the plunge? Have you cold plunged and do you like it?