When you think of a spa or wellness retreat, the image of a sauna or hot tub might come to mind. But a freezing cold bath? Not so much.

So why are so many people adding cold plunge to their wellness routines? The modality has been touted by experts to have a number of physical and mental benefits, from managing pain to soothing stress. No wonder sitting in (nearly) freezing water several times a week has become such a hot activity.

We spoke to health experts to help us break down everything there is to know about cold plunge, also called cold water immersion. Find out the benefits, risks, how long to plunge, and more ahead.

What is a cold plunge?

“A cold plunge is the act of submerging your body in cold water (59 degrees Fahrenheit or less) for an extended period of time. Cold plunges are an incredible tool for boosting the health of the body and mind,” Jonathan Leary, founder of Remedy Place, tells Bazaar.

There are many different ways to cold plunge including, but not limited to, a jump into the ocean, an ice bath, a cold shower, or a professional circulating cold tub. These cold tubs can often be found at luxury spas, fitness centers, and recovery centers. “While the benefits do range depending on the plunge style you take—all exposure is good for us to some degree,” says Frank D’Agostino, a fitness nutrition specialist.

What are the benefits of cold plunge?

Experts say there are both immediate and long-term benefits of cold plunge. “More immediate benefits of cold exposure include improved immunity, sleep quality and an increased fat-burning,” explains Frank Lipman, MD, Chief Medical Officer at The Well. “That’s because a dose of cold causes the body to shiver, which activates reactions inside the brown fat cells, the ones that our bodies burn for fuel to keep our bodies warm.”

In addition, the cold may help with pain, including headaches. “Cold exposure is also thought to tame migraine symptoms—think ice packs on the neck— and soothe irritated nerve endings that can cause pain,” adds Lipman. There is also the added boost of endorphins: “For those struggling with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, it can boost mood by triggering the release of the body’s feel-good endorphins.”

For many, there is cold plunge is also about building mental resilience and discipline: consistent exposure to cold temperatures allows the mind to get comfortable in a state of discomfort, which will improve its ability to deal with other types of stress. “Teaching the body how to handle extremes, especially within our ice baths starts to teach the body and mind that you are in control,” adds Leary. “Not only is there pure satisfaction in accomplishing something difficult, but the more you incorporate ice baths into your routine you will find that there are simple practical practices that put you back in control and inevitably teach you how to handle any stress better.”

Cold exposure is also thought to have positive effects on the skin as cold water can constrict blood vessels and decrease inflammation, which can give the skin a temporarily more radiant appearance.

What are the risks of cold plunge?

The main risk is staying in too long, which can cause hypothermia. Therefore, it’s important to be very cognizant of your time in the cold water—Lipman recommends starting at 30 seconds—to avoid causing your body temperature to drop too low.

In addition, cold plunge can be taxing on the body. “It’s not recommended to do cold plunge therapy on consecutive days, but instead to take breaks in between—doing sessions two to three times per week, or as few as one to two times when you’re first starting out,” says Lipman. “This gives your body time to recover, especially if you’re physically active in other ways.”

How long should you cold plunge?

According to Lipman, how long you plunge “depends on the individual and their goals.” Start off in small doses: “When first starting out, it’s okay to do cold plunges in short increments—even 30 seconds at a time—to build up your tolerance. From there, three to five minutes is a good target time,” advises Lipman, adding, “In any case, it’s important to listen to your body.”

Leary warns that there is such a thing as too much when it comes to cold water immersion, so you want to make sure that you stay under the point of diminishing returns. “At Remedy Place, we cap each plunge at six minutes at 38 degrees Fahrenheit, but it depends on how cold the water is,” he says. “At warmer temperatures, you can stay in for longer but really it all depends on your physical response at the moment.”

It bears repeating: If you’ve never plunged before it’s important to start with short periods of time, and gradually increase as your body adapts to the cold. “Once someone starts to really shiver, that’s a strong indication that they have reached their limit for that specific plunge,” adds Leary. “Please keep in mind your performance each day can change based on the other external demands on the body. For example, we say to our regulars if they have been out the night before drinking, the next day they might not be able to last as long or shivering might start to occur when usually it doesn’t.”

You can also go between cold plunge and heat, but Lipman there’s a proper method. “After cold exposure—and especially if alternating between hot and cold with contrast therapy—it’s best to end on cold,” says Lipman. “Then allow your body to air dry and warm itself naturally. That will enhance the metabolic gains.”

Is the practice safe to do daily?

D’Agostino suggests creating a routine beginning with three days per week for the first few weeks so you can take note of how your body feels as you introduce a new stimulus. “The latest research shows that 11 minutes a week of being fully submerged is ideal. This can be broken up in a number of ways. Personally, I try to do my ice baths every other day or two to three times per week,” says Leary.

If you find that cold plunging is starting to negatively impact your energy or mood, cut back. “Remember that ice baths are a lot for the body and it takes a lot of energy for your body to warm back up,” Leary adds. “Just like you can overtrain with your workouts, the same goes with ice baths, just instead of working on your musculoskeletal system you are working on your thermoregulators.”

Can you DIY a cold plunge at home?

If you can’t get to the wellness center, bring it to you. “You may not be able to maintain the same temperature in an at-home ice bath or cold shower as you would in a commercial cold plunge, but there’s no reason to think you can’t still reap the benefits from short-term cold exposure through these methods,” says Lipman, adding that “A DIY approach at home can also be a great way to get started with cold exposure so you can more slowly build up your tolerance.”

Who should avoid cold plunging?

Again, cold plunge is strenuous, and should not be practiced by everyone. Here’s who should avoid this modality:

  • Those with cardiovascular disease or hypertension
  • Those with Reynaud’s syndrome
  • Those who are pregnant
  • Those with high blood pressure, heart disease, or other circulatory problems
  • Those who have low body temperature at baseline
  • Those who have pacemakers (unless they have medical clearance and/or direct medical supervision)

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