You’ve probably heard it by another name: the Polar Plunge. Around the world, it’s a tradition to take a dunk (or extended swim) in icy winter waters. From Coney Island’s weekly weekend swims to Scotland’s annual Loony Dook event, many gather to participate in what has often been called a masochistic sporting event. But the benefits of cold plunge therapy (the more official name) go beyond a yearly dip in the frigid ocean. In fact, the practice has many practical claims, including faster recovery for athletes, inflammation reduction and increased metabolism. We spoke with two doctors about the benefits of cold plunging and the best way to try it for those new to the practice.
What Are the Benefits of Cold Plunge Therapy? Everything You Need to Know, According to Experts
Meet the Experts
- Jordan Wagner, DO, is a Los Angeles-based emergency medicine physician at Vituity and the personality behind the popular YouTube channel Dr. ER. Dr. Wagner holds a B.S. in biology from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine from the University of New England.
- Mufaddal M. Gombera, MD, is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with a focus on sports medicine. He specializes in shoulder, hip and knee injuries. Dr. Gombera holds a medical degree from Baylor University’s College of Medicine and is the attending surgeon at Texas Orthopedic Hospital in Houston.
What Is Cold Plunge Therapy?
“The term ‘cold plunge’ therapy generally refers to immersing oneself in cold water for therapeutic benefits,” Dr. Gombera explains. There isn’t a universally accepted temperature to define “cold,” but in general, he notes that that the water will be around 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). Dr. Gombera says that what makes the cold plunge effective is the chilly sensation, which can trigger the body’s physiological response.
Dr. Wagner adds that you should avoid dipping into water below 39 degrees Fahrenheit (four degrees Celsius). “Keep in mind that individual preferences and cold tolerance levels may vary, so it is advisable to prioritize personal comfort and make adjustments accordingly.”
There are several different methods of cold plunging:
- Immersion: Continuous exposure (tub)
- Contrast: Alternating between hot and cold water
- Showering: Cold showers
- Wim Hof Method: Pioneered by Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, whose technique includes specific breathing exercises to control the body’s response to cold
While each has its own benefits, Dr. Gombera says that there isn’t one technique that outperforms the other. He advises choosing the method that best suits you, your health goals and your current health status.
How Long Should You Plunge For?
As Dr. Wagner says, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to the cold plunge. However, if you’re new to the practice, both doctors advise building up tolerance, somewhere between two and five minutes. The most important thing is to listen to your body and then allow it to gradually warm up afterwards.
What Are the Benefits of Cold Plunge Therapy?
The benefits of cold plunge therapy can include quicker recovery after exercise, mood boosts, a strengthened cardiovascular system, increased metabolism and better coping under stress.
As this 2022 study explains, cold water exposure poses a similar challenge to the body organ systems as exercise and hypoxia, as it must work to regulate the temperature of the brain and vital organs while adjusting to a colder environment. The paper notes that cold plunging will induce vasoconstriction, vasodilation, thermogenesis and cardiopulmonary responses.
“Over time, with regular cold water exposure, the heart and the cardiovascular system adapt and strengthen,” Dr. Wagner says. “This adaptation is believed to enhance the body’s ability to manage stress and may potentially improve heart health.”
Vasoconstriction, or the narrowing of the blood vessels, is the process by which the body diverts blood flow from the extremities to your core. When you emerge from the plunge, Dr. Gombera explains, vasodilation (widening of the vessels) occurs. This process can release endorphins and result in a mood boost. As the review reports, immersion in 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit) water resulted in a 250 percent increase in dopamine concentrations.
Additionally, a 2012 study reported that those who did a cold plunge after having participated in strenuous athletic activity experienced less soreness and fatigue. Then there is the claim that cold plunges boost metabolism. This can be attributed to thermogenesis, in which brown fat (body fat that keeps you warm) is activated and burned to produce heat. However, it’s important to note that, per the 2022 study, adults have relatively little brown fat deposits—only a few grams.
“[Brown fat] thermogenesis only accounts for metabolic energy consumption of <20kcal/day, equivalent to only two minutes moderate-intensity running,” the authors write. The idea is that the cold plunge converts your white fat (major deposits of energy storage) to brown fat that would then be consumed in that process.
Finally, Dr. Wagner explains that when you do cold water immersion, the body releases adrenaline and noradrenaline. “[This can] contribute to a feeling of increased alertness and well-being,” he says. “This hormonal response, along with the training of the autonomic nervous system through cold exposure, may help to equip the body to handle other stressful situations more effectively. The concept of ‘cross-adaptation’ suggests that habituation to cold water can dampen the body’s stress response over time, potentially improving overall stress management.”
The Risks—and Who Should Avoid Cold Plunging
Dr. Gombera emphasizes the benefits of cold plunge therapy as it can assist with muscle recovery and circulation. However, both doctors advise anyone interested to proceed with caution—and the guidance of a medical professional. Dr. Wagner specifically highlights pregnant individuals and those with cardiovascular issues, respiratory issues and sensitivity to extreme temperatures.
The risks of taking a polar plunge are no joke. They include hypothermia, frostbite, drowning and cardiac events. “Drastic changes in temperature for someone with cardiovascular disease or hypertension should be discussed with their health care provider before attempting because it could put too much demand on your cardiovascular system, which could cause detrimental adverse events,” Dr. Wagner says. “When immersed in cold water, blood vessels constrict, potentially causing a temporary increase in blood pressure. However, upon exiting the cold water, arteries dilate, leading to a surge in overall blood flow.”
As with any new health treatment, both doctors emphasize that each person’s body will respond differently and may not yield the same results. So call up your doc, grab a swim suit and, pending their approval, cannonball!