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The Benefits of Cold Exposure: Are They Worth the Chill?

Cold water therapy for health and fitness

Cold water therapy, otherwise known as cold therapy, cold hydrotherapy, cryotherapy, or a good old-fashioned ice-bath, may be a trend among current health influencers, but it’s been around for millennia. The claims are that it can help reduce muscle soreness and accelerate muscle recovery, increase metabolism, decrease inflammation, and boost immune function, among other positive effects. But are the benefits of cold exposure really worth the chill? Keep reading to find out.

What Is Cold Water Therapy?

Cold water therapy involves immersing your whole body in water around 59°F (15°C) for a few minutes. (Some practitioners swear by the 10-15 minute mark.)

This is no new health practice. Hippocrates advised the use of cold exposure to help increase energy when levels were low. And rumor has it that Thomas Jefferson dipped his feet into a cold water bath every day for 60 years as a way to stay fit and healthy. Then there’s the hot-sauna-cold-plunge technique practiced by Nordic and Korean cultures alike. Heating up in a sauna for 20 minutes followed by a cold plunge into water is said to help detoxify the body, reduce inflammation, improve circulation and help lower blood pressure among other cardiovascular benefits, and rejuvenate the skin.

These days, celebrity influencers, elite athletes, and health enthusiasts around the world are convinced of the health benefits of cold exposure and are taking cold brisk showers, soaking in ice-baths, and going for swims in cool water to make cold water immersion a part of their daily routine and training regimen.

Scientifically Backed Benefits of Cold Exposure

Let’s take a look at what science has to say about the benefits of cold exposure. 

Benefits of Cold Exposure

Cold Exposure Reduces Muscle Soreness and Accelerates Recovery

According to a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, a 10-minute cold water immersion after an intense cycling session can help lower fatigue and lessen muscle soreness (1). 

In 2016, researchers reported that athletes who soaked in cold water temperatures of 53-59°F after exercise felt less sore than athletes who did not (2).

Here’s how this cold exposure benefit works: cold water causes your blood vessels to constrict, which decreases blood flow to your muscles. That’s why we ice after an injury...to reduce the swelling that occurs with inflammation.

But here’s an important caveat for those attempting to build muscle mass and strength: cold water therapy can thwart your muscle-building goals.

Muscle growth depends on the inflammation response for breaking down and building back up newer and stronger muscle fibers. Because cold exposure helps to reduce inflammation, it can impair this process and block the muscle and strength gains you’re after. 

Endurance athletes, however, can see some advantages from cold temperatures. Cold exposure increases mitochondrial biogenesis, which means that more mitochondria are joining your muscle cells to increase their aerobic capacity and improve your performance! 

Cold Exposure Cools You Down Faster

If you’re overheated, then a cold shower will help cool down your body temperature faster than hanging out in a cold environment. A meta-analysis of 19 studies showed that cold water immersions chilled overheated people out twice as fast (3). 

Cold Exposure Boosts Your Immune Function

Cold water exposure boosts your immune response in two ways: it increases the amount of immune cells in your bloodstream and helps you gradually become more resistant to stressors. 

Research indicates that, along with meditating and deep breathing, cold water immersion increases anti-inflammatory immune cells and decreases pro-inflammatory cytokines (4). 

Cold Exposure Improves Your Mood

Exposing your body to cold temperatures doesn’t just energize. It also improves your mood by boosting norepinephrine in the brain. Norepinephrine promotes concentration, quickens reaction time, and positively influences mood. One study even suggests that twice daily cold showers can help relieve the symptoms of depression (5).

Does Cold Exposure Promote Fat Burning and Weight Loss?

Science supports the claims that cold exposure increases metabolic rate, which in turn increases calorie burning, and even stimulates fat burning, which translates to fat loss...but there are much easier ways to chase your weight-loss goals. But first, the weight-loss benefits.

Science has pretty solidly proven that exposure to cool water can speed metabolic rate. A prime example is the Korean women from Jeju Island who earned their living diving for seafood in waters chilled to 50-70°F, in cotton bathing suits, no less! Researchers determined that their basal metabolic rate was far higher in the cold water temperatures of winter than in the summer.

A 2009 study showed that cold exposure in 59°F water for 5 minutes also raises metabolism, which is, of course, associated with increased calorie burning and weight loss. 

Research also indicates that cold exposure helps activate brown adipose tissue (BAT—brown fat), which is linked to a speedier metabolic rate and more calories and body fat burned. Brown fat is considered the "good fat," while white fat is considered the "bad fat" that is blamed for the fat accumulation that leads to obesity. 

One study showed that a 2.5-hour cold water immersion session burned 250 calories via a process called non-shivering thermogenesis that kicks in to protect the body's core temperature (6). Sounds great, until you pay attention to the time—two and a half hours in cold water! You can burn 250 calories in 25 minutes bicycling at 14-16 mph, or walking for an hour.

A separate study showed that people who spent 2 hours every day for 6 weeks in cold water lost 1.5 pounds. That’s quite the time commitment when you could easily lose 2 pounds in 2 weeks with simple dietary and exercise adjustments.

A Simpler Way to Lessen Muscle Soreness, Reduce Inflammation, Boost Immunity and Promote Weight Loss

In addition to cold exposure being, well, just too dang cold for a lot of folks, it can also have life-threatening side effects for some. Immersing yourself quickly in cold water can significantly increase your heart rate and cause cardiac stress. Swimming in cold water has been linked to numerous heart attacks and death, and should only be practiced under the advisement of your doctor.

While a quick dip in cold water generally does a body good, so too does a scoop of amino acids, the building blocks of life!

Amino acid supplements are proven to:

If you’re looking for a nutritional therapy to support total-body wellness, either with or without cold exposure, then look no further than Amino Co Essential Amino Acid blends.

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