Starting in the early 2000’s ice baths and cold immersion started gaining traction as a health-support strategy. Gaining the attention of athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and health seekers - the health benefits of an ice bath have been highly regarded. In recent times, ice baths have exploded in popularity for many purposes including exercise recovery, pain reduction, boosting the immune system, and even warding off anxiety or depression.
Are these claims legit or are the benefits of an ice bath overstated? Let’s take an objective look at cold immersion and attempt to determine how important they really are for achieving good health. Additionally, we will analyze one of the more recent hot topics around ice bathing - addressing anxiety and depression.
What are Some Ice Bath Health Benefits?
As was mentioned already, the most commonly reported ice bath health benefits include reducing inflammation, boosting the immune system, and boosting mental health. Many believe that these health benefits are well-researched and substantially supported in scientific literature. Recent reviews of the available evidence suggest that there is a wide variance of responses to cold therapy in different people and studies are actually very inconsistent in demonstrating benefits for inflammation and the immune system (1).
While the evidence we do have suggests there may be some short-term improvements in certain aspects of physiology, are ice baths likely to be addressing the root cause of most health problems?
While they have been used for decades for post-exercise recovery, one of the more recently highlighted ice bath health benefits is the reduction of anxiety and depression. Let’s take a deeper look at this benefit in particular and how its implications may be extrapolated to the other touted ice bath health benefits.
One of the major mechanisms associated with ice baths for anxiety and depression is the up-regulation of endorphins. In addition to endorphins, ice baths also activate a sympathetic nervous system response, causing the release of cortisol - a stimulatory hormone. While immersed in an ice bath, this production of endorphins and norepinephrine provides a temporary boost in mood and energy levels - which also provides a perceived relief from the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Something that is important to note here is that this is a temporary stimulation of the body’s biochemistry providing a temporary outcome - not much different than the temporary stimulation that comes from a cup of coffee.
If these benefits only extend out immediately following an ice bath, how often must someone ice bathe in order to maintain this beneficial effect? Does the body stop responding as robustly when they are performed frequently? Are we actually addressing the root of the anxiety and depression or just temporarily masking it?
Constantly repeating the same stimulus will often lead to a point in time that the body stops responding - rendering ice baths completely ineffective and leaving the individual to address their anxiety and depression symptoms once again. This gives us a clue that anxiety and depression aren’t simply related to raising or lowering endorphins and norepinephrine. While we can acknowledge their utility in temporarily improving symptoms, we should still aim to identify more fundamental strategies for improving mental wellbeing long-term.
Do Ice Baths Burn Fat?
One way in which ice baths burn fat, supposedly, is by upregulating your metabolism. When your body is exposed to cold temperatures, it must upregulate heat production in order to maintain a suitable body temperature. This ultimately leads to a slight upregulation in fat burning.
The problem with this approach to burning fat, however, is that it is not likely to address the fundamental behavioral problem that caused the body to have excessive fat to begin with.
Ultimately, if someone has a habit of consuming too many calories, using an ice bath to burn fat is missing the point. This is the same stance we take with using exercise to burn fat. Address the fundamental behavior causing the problem. It takes substantially more effort and inflicts substantially more stress on the body to exercise off 300 calories than it does to not eat 300 calories to begin with.
People intrinsically know this, however, overeating is often a dysfunctional response to anxiety. If you can’t develop a better response to stress, taking control of your overeating will continue to be a challenge.
So do ice baths burn fat?
While there has been some research showing that exposure to cold upregulates some measurements of “fat-burning”, there actually havent been any studies showing that regularly ice bathing actually leads to weight loss (2).
How Long to Ice Bath and Is it Good to Do an Ice Bath Every Day?
While ice baths can have some benefits, keep in mind that exposing your body to extreme temperatures (hot or cold) is a stressor. Any stressor can become maladaptive once it is altering your physiology greater than your physiology can regulate itself.
That being said, figuring out how long to ice bath is something you will have to determine at any given moment based on your current health.
One good feedback for determining your current ability to take on stress (and therefore how long to ice bath) would be your heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is essentially a measure of the current adaptability of your body. Generally, when your HRV is high, your body is more capable of handling stress.
Therefore, when your HRV is high, this may be a situation in which you could increase how long to ice bath.
There are a number of devices available to help measure HRV. These devices are one type of feedback you can use to determine how conducive your daily habits are to your health. When you observe that you can consistently achieve high sleep scores and reliably maintain an elevated HRV - you are on a relatively good track in terms of your health.
That being said, these measurements are just one piece of the puzzle.
Start with More Fundamental Health Strategies
Below is a graphic of some of the most important strategies to employ for overall health. Generally, the idea is that the strategies on the bottom of the pyramid are the most impactful to overall well being and that the higher levels should only be addressed once the more fundamental behaviors have been implemented consistently over time.
For more discussion about our outlook on anxiety and mental well-being, checkout these articles:
So where do ice baths fit on this hierarchy? Well, technically they aren’t really necessary and therefore not on the hierarchy. That doesn’t mean they can’t be useful though.
A Different Way to Look at Ice Bath Health Benefits
While we can acknowledge that there is some benefit to partaking in an ice bath from time to time, it can certainly be overdone and become more of a promoter of stress rather than a promoter of wellbeing. That is the key, learning to judge if something is causing more stress or more regeneration within your body.
That being said, let’s investigate perhaps a more useful way to generate ice bath health benefits.
As you can see in our “FP’s Hierarchy of Needs” graphic above, managing your stress is a key strategy for promoting wellness in the body. There are two major aspects of stress management: 1) Not overextending yourself in day to day activities and 2) Not being overly reactive to stressors. The latter is what we are going to discuss here.
Your nervous system has two branches: one that is responsible for stimulation (sympathetic) and one that is responsible for rest and regeneration (parasympathetic). The more often you can put yourself in a parasympathetic state, the more efficiently you can heal and recover from sickness, injury, or workouts. The more time you spend in a sympathetic state, the less your body can heal. Your control over these states is highly conditioned.
Being overly reactive to stress makes stress more stressful than it should be. Neurotic people get very stressed over little things.
This is a behavioral response that can be trained. People who are hyper-reactive tend to be much less resilient. This is because every little stressor they encounter takes a massive toll on their energy. People who tend to respond more stoically to stress don’t feel as stressed by the same stressors that hyper-reactive people experience. Additionally, conditioning your stress response allows you to bring your nervous system back to a state of calm more quickly after experiencing stress.
In other words, you can practice responding in a less anxious manner to various situations. By doing so, you can spend more time with your body in a relaxed or parasympathetic state and stress isn’t as draining.
Having good control over your stress response clearly provides massive utility for your health in this regard. One way you can start taking control of your stress response is by putting yourself into controlled stressful situations and learning to become less reactive while experiencing that stress.
This is one of many ways that Functional Patterns practitioners assist people all around the world in getting results with the FP training methodology. By conditioning the body to be in a more parasympathetic state, you get ongoing benefits that increase with time as you get better at placing your body in a regenerative state. The benefits of being in this state likely outweigh the temporary benefit of spiking your endorphins and norepinephrine with an ice bath.
With the above information in mind, however, applying this outlook to an ice bath may have some utility. When you immerse yourself in cold water, the initial impulse is to fidget around and hyperventilate - reinforcing anxious behavior patterns in the brain.
What if instead you practiced being non-reactive to the cold? Perhaps then an occasional ice bath could be much more inclined to create long-term benefits. Nonetheless, even with this approach there is still a point at which partaking in ice baths too frequently can become more of a stressor.
Furthermore, learning to become less reactive to cold doesn’t necessarily mean you will become less reactive to all stressors in your life. Instead it makes the most sense to get right at the root of the issue by learning to become less reactive to everyday situations that currently cause you a lot of stress (work, relationships, exercise, dealing with pain, etc.). Learning to alter your body language is likely the first step in improving your ability to alter your stress response.
How Do You Alter Your Body Language?
We’re not saying that becoming less reactive to everyday stressors is easy. What we are saying is that it carries substantially more benefits across your lifetime than learning to take ice baths really well.
If you are an anxious or depressed person, you likely express it in your body language. This body language then carries over into how you handle every situation throughout your day.
So what are you supposed to do? Should you “fake it til you make it” and just act like you feel great all the time even though you’re anxious or depressed? Absolutely not. This will likely make the problem worse.
One way that Functional Patterns clients are able to vastly improve anxious or depressive tendencies is by partaking in corrective exercises. Whether they are the exercises in the 10-Week Course or they are working with a practitioner, properly executed corrective exercises are incredibly stressful on the body. When people learn to downregulate their stress response while undergoing corrective exercise, they often adopt more confident and relaxed body language.
Once you’ve started addressing the body language aspect of your stress response, you might find yourself responding more favorably to other stressors in your life.
While an ice bath can certainly provide benefits. Most of the commonly reported benefits of an ice bath are short-lived. Additionally, partaking in cold immersion too frequently or with too much intensity can quickly become too stressful to the body - especially for those who are not healthy already.
As is represented in our “hierarchy of needs” graphic, more fundamental aspects of achieving health include eating healthy, getting regular sun, optimizing sleep, hydrating well, and improving your mechanics. These are aspects of health that we have observed to be the most important after working with thousands of clients worldwide.
Once all of the most fundamental behaviors are accounted for, implementing occasional ice baths to build a more stoic response to stressors may be helpful. Keep in mind that you can also practice being more stoic in all aspects of life including in your interactions with other people, during your training sessions, and during times of unexpected stress.
- Tipton MJ, Collier N, Massey H, Corbett J, Harper M. Cold water immersion: kill or cure? Exp Physiol. 2017 Nov 1;102(11):1335-1355. doi: 10.1113/EP086283. Epub 2017 Sep 21. PMID: 28833689.
- Peres Valgas da Silva C, Hernández-Saavedra D, White JD, Stanford KI. Cold and Exercise: Therapeutic Tools to Activate Brown Adipose Tissue and Combat Obesity. Biology (Basel). 2019 Feb 12;8(1):9. doi: 10.3390/biology8010009. PMID: 30759802; PMCID: PMC6466122.