Health / Wellbeing

Curious about cold water therapy? Here’s what to know before you take the plunge

cold water therapy

Last winter, on a work trip to Hobart, I found myself tiptoeing into an icy pool at the bottom of kunanyi. The temperature was in the singlet digits, both inside the water and out, and I had blocked the activity from my mind until there I was, surrounded by a bunch of fellow writers all stripped down to our bikinis looking at the snow-capped mountain above us. Despite instruction from a Wim Hof-trained official, it was the female solidarity I found most helpful. Screw it. We plunged in for the required two minutes, squealing with our feet and fingers going numb as we did our best to regulate our breathing and think warm thoughts. Then, each of us waddled out, blood rushing to the surface of our skin to create a lit-from-within glow. Afterward I felt buoyant and alert, it was easier to breathe – which is no small thing for someone with a constant blocked nose.

It wasn't my first encounter with cold water therapy – I swim at the beach year-round and in winter I regularly walk the Karloo Track with the sole intention of dipping into the crystalline pond at its end. Doing so reminds me of the women who swim at Hampstead Heath Ponds even on London's coldest days, or of this recent snap of Harry Styles and Taylor Russell in booties, beanies, and gloves following a swim at the same location. It's clear cold water therapy is catching on.

But you don't have to be an ocean swimmer or ship yourself off to Antarctica to experience cold water therapy. Even the least intrepid among us will be familiar with the practice given its crossover into beauty. We're told to ice our face to depuff and stick our gua sha tools in the fridge. It's not uncommon to find bathtubs filled with ice at your local spa. We even finish our showers with a 30 second blast of cold water (or at least try to, anyway).

But what exactly are the benefits of cold water therapy? And how can you practice is safely? More on that, below.

Benefits of Cold Water Therapy

Athletes have adopted the practice for decades, plunging into ice baths to quicken recovery and soothe swollen muscles. Ako Kondo, a principal dancer at The Australian Ballet, ends each night by icing her legs. And yes, Wim Hof the Dutch self-styled "Ice Man" preaches the benefits of his cold water method, saying it reduces inflammation, stimulates blood flow, produces endorphins, aids sleep and increases energy levels.

It must be mentioned that research to support these benefits are mixed, but there is an argument that this is because it's a new area of study and less to do with credibility. Placebo or not, you can't deny the immediate shift on your mood after a cold water plunge. However, it's always best to check in with your GP before participating in cold water therapy, as the shock of cold water immersion can trigger cardiac arrhythmia along with a non-freezing cold injury (trench foot), which happens when nerves and blood vessels are damaged.

It's not clear if there's a temperature or duration of exposure that's most effective. But a good rule of thumb with cold water exposure is less is more. Staying in longer or seeking out colder water could do more harm than good.

How to try Cold Water Therapy

Start small with a cold shower or bath. The beauty here being you can control the temperature, are familiar with the setting, and can minimize and other hazards. If you're ready to try your hand at swimming in a creek, pond or the open ocean, do so in a group. This way you have people nearby if anything goes wrong. It's also way more fun to experience it in a social setting, that way you can encourage each other and laugh when someone inevitably squeals. Before you plunge, ensure you've planned a way to warm yourself up afterwards be it with a hot drink, warm clothes or blankets.

Another alternative is to book a session with an instructor like I experienced in Hobart. Wild Wellness' Fire and Ice Walk has it all. Otherwise you can experience cryotherapy by stepping into a cryo chamber at a practice near you. Then there are spas like Slow House in Bondi that offer ice bath sessions as part of the wellness experience.

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