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Doing a plunge into freezing waters is a wellness ritual that has been on my radar for a while now, but only recently has the cold plunge trend taken social media by storm.
Serious athletes have long been known to use ice baths as a recovery tool. Then there was The Goop Lab episode where Goop staffers practiced the Wim Hof breathing technique, which combines deep inhalations with cold exposure, before taking a dip in an icy lake. More recently, Chris Hemsworth experimented with the benefits of cold exposure during the “Arctic Swim” episode of his Disney+ docuseries Limitless.
And of course, there are the many, many polar bear plunges where the masses take to the ocean during seasonally inappropriate times, like New Year's Day. Somehow, this evolved into influencers (and even Russell Brand) documenting their daily experience of soaking in a personal cold plunge tub.
I am a non-influencer living in a New York City apartment, so I do not have my own personal plunge pool, but I still wanted to see what it was all about.
Lucky for me, many gyms and spas are now offering them as part of the experience, so I was able to find a short frigid bath only a few subway stops away.
How to do a cold plunge safely
Before taking the plunge, as it were, I talked to human and applied physiology professor Mike Tipton. He said he would recommend that anyone interested in cold water immersion do so in a regulated environment using protocols that are known to be safe. Those with a plunge pool at home should definitely make sure they’re aware of how to use it safely, said Tipton, who works in the Extreme Environments Laboratory in the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science at the University of Portsmouth.
Since this was my first official cold plunge, I headed to the Wall Street Equinox. This gym’s location is one of two that offers dips into the Plunge tub, which you can also buy for at-home use. It can be set as low as 39 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thankfully Equinox keeps its tub at a still chilly but more reasonable 52 degrees. James Gu, the senior director of spa at Equinox, answered all of my questions, coached me through some breathing exercises to make sure I was embarking on this journey safely, and supervised me during the actual plunge.
Gu said it’s ideal to submerge about up to your neck and recommended that I set my personal goal to five minutes. He said that if you want to cold plunge regularly it’s best to aim for around 11 minutes per week, which can be done in one sitting or broken up over a series of days. You should take your cold plunge before exercise if you’re combining the two activities.
Tipton confirmed that all of this was appropriate for safety and to maximize results.
He said that the maximum physiological response to cold occurs somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius, or around 50 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and 11 minutes per week should be fine for people without any major risk factors.
The potential risks of a cold plunge
So how safe is a cold plunge? Even for fit and healthy people, prolonged cold exposure can lead to frostbite, hypothermia, or what Tipton called a non-freezing cold injury. This occurs when your tissue doesn’t fully freeze but gets very cold repeatedly or overexposed to cold and wet conditions.
The result can be ongoing symptoms in your extremities — for example, your hands and feet may get cold very easily and quickly, stay cold for a long time, and become painful. In extreme cases, this type of injury can result in damage that requires amputation.
Immersion in cold water is a major shock to the body, which means that you should also always consult your doctor before giving it a try. Since that shock has the potential to raise your blood pressure and put a strain on your heart, it’s particularly dangerous for anyone with preexisting cardiovascular conditions or hypertension.
Those with Raynaud’s disease or an allergy to cold (some people react with hives) should also avoid cold water immersion. Raynaud’s disease is a condition where cold temperatures or stress cause constriction of blood vessels that results in fingers or toes that get cold, numb, painful, and change color, turning white or even bluish.
For those who have never tried a cold plunge before, it’s likely safer to gradually work your way up in time and down in temperature. Since I don’t have any preexisting conditions and have briefly jumped into freezing water before, the experts I talked to weren’t worried about me going for five minutes at 52 degrees.
Benefits of a cold plunge
When you hit the cold water, you are at risk of hyperventilating, which is rapid breathing that can be triggered by fear or stress. Although unlikely, hyperventilation could potentially cause you to faint or pass out.
However, if you can control your breathing, the experience is much more manageable. Gu helped me practice with a few deep belly breaths, box breaths (in for four counts, hold for four counts, out for four counts, repeat), and ujjayi breaths before I submerged.
I was familiar with ujjayi breathing, a common form of breath control that focuses on breathing through your nose, thanks to regular hot yoga.
Despite having this information and practicing my breathing techniques, I started to hyperventilate once I had fully lowered myself into the water (this style of plunge pool is like a bathtub where you step in feet first). My fight-or-flight response was engaged, and all I wanted to do was jump out of the tub. If Gu hadn’t been there watching, I definitely would have jumped out as fast as I could.
As it turns out, my fear of looking like a quitter is more powerful than my fight-or-flight, so I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing until I was able to somewhat regulate it. I can’t say I was relaxed, but I no longer felt like I was going to die. Gu told me that if I could make it to 90 seconds, it’d be smooth sailing for the remainder. And despite the foot pain I was experiencing and the ridiculous amount of tension I was holding in my shoulders, it sort of was.
Honestly, the biggest positive outcome for me was the sense of achievement. Staying under that water for five minutes did not feel easy, but I pushed through and reached my goal. I was proud of myself and had a newfound sense of confidence that I could breathe through other stressful, uncomfortable situations. And according to Tipton, I’m not alone in that feeling.
“One of the things that people report and part of the reason they benefit from doing cold exposure is they feel that they've conquered the challenge,” he said. “They have the ability to control their breathing when they once couldn't, and it's a sense of satisfaction and achievement that makes them feel good about themselves.”
Tipton divided the other main beneficial claims into three categories — feeling more awake and alert (an obvious one that doesn’t require scientific proof), boosting your immune system, and reducing inflammation. I would add that the other I hear a lot about is an improvement in mood and mental well-being.
When it comes to scientific evidence, most of the existing studies are either too broad or not designed adequately to determine if there is a physical or mental benefit to cold plunging.
For example, in one case study published by Tipton and colleagues, a 24-year-old with treatment-resistant depression eventually was able to stop taking medication after doing weekly swims in cold water. However, it’s not clear if she felt better after swimming because of the cold or the exercise itself (which has been shown to help depression).
One study that Tipton mentioned showed that swimmers had fewer upper respiratory tract infections than non-swimmers, though that benefit was the same whether they swam in cold water or warm pools.
Tipton said that at least anecdotally, many people do seem to experience benefits, like one woman who found that cold water immersion helped with her extreme migraines. And though he believes that anecdotal evidence is valid, he wants to do more research to be able to back it up scientifically.
“We don't have a lot of great research yet, but we do know what neurochemicals are being released when you do a cold plunge, and that's increased endorphins, increased norepinephrine, increased dopamine, some early studies have found,” Justin Puder, a South Florida psychologist, told BuzzFeed News. “Just at that blanket level, if you told me as a psychologist there's an activity you can do that increases those neurochemicals, I would say it's got a great chance of improving mental health.”
That chemical release suggests there might be a benefit, but again, we still don’t know for sure if there is one or how long those benefits might last, according to Puder.
I will admit that the challenge and satisfaction of it all made me want to come back for more. Since I don’t have regular access to a natural body of water or a personal plunge tub, I may try making the water as cold as possible for the last 30 seconds of my daily shower.
While you could fill your bathtub with icy water and try a DIY cold plunge at home, as Tipton said, it’s probably safer to try these techniques in an environment that’s more regulated.
Even if it starts to feel easier at some point, Tipton warned that more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to cold plunging. When people think something is good for them, they tend to assume doing it twice as much will be even better, but too much cold exposure can actually cause more harm than good, he said.
I’m eagerly awaiting any new studies, which I’m sure will come out given how trendy cold water immersion has become in the wellness space. If I feel like I experience any health benefits, I may want to do it (safely) even more. Maybe someday I’ll be able to have my own Plunge, but until then, I’ll stick to briefly cold showers and the occasional winter dip in the ocean.
You can buy the Plunge from the Cold Plunge for around $4,990.