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The fascinating benefits of cold water therapy

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Traditional cold water therapy, also known as cold hydrotherapy, involves water that’s around 59°F (15°C) to treat heath conditions or stimulate health benefits.

It might sound more like torture than therapy, but cold-water therapy is something that professional athletes have been harnessing the power of for years! Ice baths are known to help muscles post-workout and reduce the chance of developing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), but cold water therapy is not just reserved for those from a sporting background. In fact, in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, cold water bathing is a long-established tradition with hundreds flocking to beautiful open-air bath houses dotted along the coastlines and lakes for a dip in the icy cold water.

The health benefits of cold water therapy

Cold water therapy is suitable for everyone, provided they don’t suffer from heart or circulation conditions, and regular cold bathing has been shown to have a number of health benefits. Scientists at Oulu University in Finland conducted numerous studies, with one of them finding that cold bathing improved memory, decreased tension and increased energy, thanks to temporarily altering blood circulation.1 Many specific health benefits are backed up by science:

Decreased muscle soreness

Studies have indicated that spending short periods in cold water following intense activity can result in less muscle soreness later on. One of the reasons given by medical experts is that cold water causes your blood vessels to constrict, thereby reducing blood flow, which can help with swelling and inflammation.2

May help maintain a healthy mental state

While it’s not a cure for depression, cold water therapy has been suggested in studies to help with the symptoms of it. This is because physiological health may be somewhat dependant on stressors that would be experienced naturally in the wild, such as brief changes in body temperature.3

May boost your immunity

Exposure to cold water might, according to studies, be a factor in stimulating your body’s immune system, which could in theory also increase your ability to fight illnesses.4

Might help ease migraines and headaches

Migraine sufferers have found relief in using cold packs. It’s thought that this is because the coldness numbs the nerves, thereby reducing pain. Ice packs are a simple home remedy, with studies showing that applying a frozen neck wrap at the onset of a migraine could significantly reduce the pain suffered.5

But I don’t have access to a Nordic lake…

While it traditionally takes place in a freshwater Nordic lake where you can also enjoy the benefits of fresh air and nature, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have access to one! You can adapt it to include ice baths, brisk daily showers and outdoor swims. You don’t need to torture yourself – while you might be brave enough to step straight into an ice-cold shower, you can also start with warm water and gradually lower the temperature. Or perhaps try giving yourself a cold blast at the end of your regular shower? If you want to take it up a notch, skip the shower altogether and add ice to a cold bath until the temperature is around 15°C. Make sure you don’t spend too long in there and risk hypothermia though – a few minutes is plenty. If you have access to somewhere cooler than normal to swim outdoors, whether it’s an icy lake or not, you can also give that a try. Beware though, that hypothermia can occur even once you are out of the water, so make sure you wrap up warm and keep moving once you get out.

Fancy giving cold water therapy a try? It might be slightly out of your comfort zone, but the Nordics knew what they were doing when they made it one of their regular pastimes. From simple invigoration, to physiological health benefits ranging from less muscle soreness to a boosted metabolism and the maintenance of a healthy mental state, it’s certainly worth a go. 

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15253480/ []
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21710292/ []
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17993252/ []
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4034215/ []
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3727573/ []