A new trend is causing people to soak their bodies in freezing cold water in the belief that it will help improve their immune system and cardiovascular health. While there is little evidence backing these claims, cold plunging could actually be harmful.
Cold plunging has been used for centuries for therapeutic, health, and sporting recovery. In the sports medicine world, it’s called cold water immersion. It’s usually performed post-workout as a way to reduce inflammation and stop muscle soreness from recurring.
“It helps stop the lactic acid build-up by making the blood vessels smaller,” says Bryanna Howard, MS, LAT, adjunct professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training at the University of Utah College of Health and an athletic trainer at University of Utah Health.
But cold plunging isn’t for everyone, and it’s not recommended before talking to your doctor. The plunge itself can be dangerous if you don’t do it the right way. It’s important to follow these steps if you’re considering taking the plunge.
1. Talk to your doctor
Some people can put themselves at risk of negative outcomes. Have a conversation with your doctor to let them know you are interested in cold plunging and whether it’s safe for you. People with heart conditions, who take medications, and older adults may be at higher risk.
2. Prep your body
Your body needs time to adjust to avoid a cold shock. Get your body ready for immersion by gradually adjusting the water temperature after taking a shower. Howard advises not to immediately make the water as cold as possible. Instead, slowly adjust the temperature and let your body get used to the change for 30 to 60 seconds. “You’re training your body to be in that environment, like you would do for running a race,” Howard says.
3. Watch the water temperature
A cold plunge is usually between 55 to 69 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything colder is a health risk. The National Center for Water Safety warns that immersion in water less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit can kill you in less than a minute.
4. Don't plunge alone
Better yet, plunge with a friend or someone with medical experience. They can watch for the signs and symptoms of cold shock.
5. Don't dive in
If it’s your first time taking a cold plunge, slowly submerge your body. Most importantly, keep your head above water.
6. Listen to your body
The shock of cold water can immediately put your body in distress. The American Heart Association says that cold plunging can cause a sudden, rapid increase in breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Hypothermia can also be triggered faster. Listen to and pay attention to your body.
Get out of the water if you experience any of these symptoms:
Chest pain or discomfort
Increase in breathing or irregular breathing
Lightheaded or dizzy
Change in color to your fingers or toes, as this may be a sign of hypothermia or frostbite
Howard says it’s normal to experience irregular breathing at first. This is the body’s natural response as it pumps oxygen through the body. It’s important that you pay attention to your breathing and make sure it becomes stable.
7. Build up your plunge
Just like preparing for a marathon, you need to build up the amount of time spent in the water. For your first and second plunge, try it out for no more than five minutes. After that, you can try to gradually increase your time in the water.
8. Warm up
Your body needs warmth after a cold plunge. Get inside, put on warm clothes, stand by a heat source, or drink a warm beverage.