Ice baths: what are the benefits?

A group of People in an ice bath at P3 Recovery

While hanging out in icy cold water may not sound like your idea of fun, you may be surprised to learn exactly how ice bath benefits your fitness, recovery and healing.

You’re likely familiar with the idea of icing an injury to reduce swelling and aid healing. Well, ice baths do the same thing on a much larger scale. Immersing yourself in very cold water (an ice bath isn’t actually ‘ice’, it is ideally anywhere between 8-16°C) constricts your blood vessels. Once you warm back up again this increases blood flow, jump starting the healing process and helping to flush waste products from your cells while reducing inflammation and tissue breakdown.

Do you really need the whole-body immersion over a localised ice pack? The short answer is yes. Let’s explore why, here are our top 4 ice bath benefits:

1.Ice baths increase your heart rate variability (HRV)

If you’re unfamiliar with it, HRV has become the new standard of measuring current and future health. Using specialised devices to record the amount of time between your heartbeats, HRV can indicate the presence of various health problems. And not just those related to the heart – it can highlight the presence of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression as well as future health challenges.

Without unpacking this entirely right now, a high HRV indicates a body that is resilient and adaptable while a low HRV is associated with high levels of stress and/or disease. Research indicates that cold water immersion therapy, particularly ice baths, inhibit sympathetic nervous system activity (AKA your stress response) and augment parasympathetic nervous system activity (your body’s preferred state of calm). The more frequently you’re in your parasympathetic nervous system, the higher your HRV will be. It’s worth noting that exercise, particularly high intensity exercise, is a stress on the body, so if you’re someone who trains hard, including ice baths into your routine can be highly beneficial to your health and recovery.

2.Ice bath boost your mood

Ever notice how an invigorating cold shower or bath gives your mood a little lift? This is because the cold receptors in your skin send a jolt of electrical impulses to your brain’s nerve endings, improving your mental clarity and reducing anxiety. Another way ice baths boost your mood is by triggering the neurotransmitter and hormone, norepinephrine. Tied to your stress response, norepinephrine sharpens your focus and plays a role in your sleep-wake cycle as well as your mood regulation. Too much or too little norepinephrine can impact on your mental and emotional health and is associated with conditions such as anxiety, depression, addiction and PTSD. When the body releases norepinephrine, we can experience feelings of euphoria and happiness – and this is one of the key reasons why you feel so good after taking an ice bath.

Research into the link between depression and ice baths is ongoing and there is lots we still don’t know about why it helps. But if you feel that your mental health or mood could use a little boost, try adding ice baths to your regular routine and see for yourself what a difference it makes.

3.Ice baths reduce inflammation and muscle soreness

Researchers found that athletes who soaked in cold water reported less muscle soreness after exercising than those who didn’t. In fact, the athletes who took an ice bath reported less soreness even when they didn’t do any exercise at all. It could also be that when it comes to getting icy, consistency is key. The athletes who took the ice baths consistently reported less regular soreness than their counterparts over time.

There is also evidence to suggest that ice baths help to reduce inflammation in the body which is particularly important if you are experiencing ongoing and persistent stress. Cortisol, the long-term stress hormone, drives inflammation in the body and if the body is subject to chronic inflammation that can become a problem. Numerous health conditions, including arthritis, depression, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer, have been linked to chronic inflammation so it’s best to keep your inflammatory markers nice and low outside of acute injuries or infections.

4.Ice baths cultivate resilience

As you now know, ice baths strengthen your HRV which helps to build physical resilience. But submerging yourself in a pool of really cold water for a few minutes (or more) requires mental resilience too. You know it’s going to be uncomfortable – nobody likes feeling cold – so you need to overcome the obstacle in your mind and persevere through the discomfort. Cultivating this kind of mental fortitude increases your capacity to cope with whatever life throws at you. This makes you better equipped to deal with the stressors that pop up in your day-to-day life.

So grab a friend and come on down to P3 for an ice bath and discover for yourself how good they make you feel! Whether you’re an athlete or just looking to improve your physical and mental health, you’ll get to chill out with your favourite people in an incredibly therapeutic way.

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