One scroll through social media lately and you may stumble on videos of fitness influencers or celebrities dunking themselves in cold water in the name of health. Say hello to the world of cold plunging — a practice that is said to come with a plethora of both physical and mental benefits.
While there is not an exact, one-size-fits-all definition for cold plunging, the water tends to be between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit and is usually done for no more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time, said Dr. Tracy Zaslow, a primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. However, some people are taking their dunks in temps lower than that, with some showing themselves breaking a layer of ice off the top of their bath before climbing in. Normally, everything except your head is submerged.
“The premise is that it provides health benefits,” according to Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer at WebMD. But is that really true? Are the perks of submerging yourself in icy water really worth the chill? We asked experts to weigh in on some of cold plunging’s purported benefits:
Claim 1: Cold plunging helps with muscle soreness.
Many athletes have been practicing various forms of cold plunging for years, but you may have heard them called ice baths. The premise is essentially the same, and the goal is usually to eliminate muscle soreness after a tough workout.
“There [are] some studies that did show if you submerge for about 10 minutes after exercising that there may be less soreness in the days to follow,” Zaslow said.
But, oppositely, other studies show stretching or doing some active recovery after a workout is more beneficial than a cold plunge, she added. “So, I think that it’s mixed on that.”
Claim 2: It boosts your immune system.
Brands like Plunge, which sells a cold plunge tub, claim cold plunging benefits your immune system — which is also a common idea among people on TikTok and Instagram.
“The claim about boosting immunity I think is a little more theoretical,” Zaslow said.
Different studies have looked at cold plunging’s impact on the immune system but have paired the activity with meditation and deep breathing.
“And so, when those were [done] together, there was some decrease in infection rates, but it wasn’t clear which one of those was the most significant,” Zaslow stated, “and there was definitely some thought that it was the breathing versus the cold water immersion that was a component.”
Claim 3: It promotes weight loss.
On social media, many cold plunge advocates say it can help you lose weight, but experts aren’t so sure about that.
“I think a specific study looked at about five minutes in cold water that’s less than 59 degrees, and that did show that there was an increase in metabolism, meaning how hard your body is working, how much energy is burning,” Zaslow said. “But they didn’t necessarily link that directly to weight loss.”
Many people assume that an increased metabolism means a higher calorie burn, and, because of this, you’ll lose weight, but Zaslow said she doesn’t think any studies totally confirm that idea.
Claim 4: It helps you sleep.
According to Whyte, many of the cold plunge benefits that are touted on social media, including improved sleep, are unproven.
In fact, one small study of male cyclists found that those who took part in cold water immersion after exercise had the same quality of sleep as those who exercised and did not do a cold plunge.
Claim 5: It helps you feel less stressed.
Zaslow said there was a study that looked at winter swimmers and found that cold-water swimming helped decrease their stress and improve their mood.
“But ... we couldn’t necessarily tease out, was it the swimming that was doing it or was it the cold water?” Zaslow said. And, studies have found, time and time again, that regular exercise is linked with improved mood and lower levels of stress.
While cold water and swimming seem to relieve stress, it’s not known if cold plunging alone would have the same impact — or if it’s the addition of exercise that makes this beneficial.
Claim 6: It cools you down.
Because of the temperature of the water, cold plunging does help you cool down after a hot, sweaty workout.
“It’s a faster cool down than if you’re just in the ambient air. Being in a cold environment can decrease your body temperature faster,” Zaslow said.
Zaslow said this is important if you’re overheated, and cold plunges can be a good treatment for things like heat stroke. As for just cooling you down after a workout, experts aren’t sure how important that is.
“I don’t believe that there’s been any studies that showed whether cooling down faster in a non-overheated setting really made any difference in other outcomes,” Zaslow said.
If you do try cold plunging, be careful.
“People should remember that extreme temperature changes are a stress on the body. If you have underlying health conditions, the stress of the cold temperature can affect your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure in negative ways,” Whyte said.
He compared cold plunging with exercise and said the two can have the same impact in some ways, but, like exercise, different people require different fitness regimens because of underlying health conditions.
And there are a few other safety tips to keep in mind if you’re interested in trying the trend out: “Don’t do a cold plunge alone, and certainly not longer than a few minutes, if you are new to it,” Whyte added.
There are other ways to achieve cold plunging’s alleged benefits.
“It’s important to know that the benefits — although widely discussed on social media — have not been backed by science,” Whyte said. Folks (and the cold plunge spas that are opening across the country) are probably exaggerating the benefits of this practice.
“I don’t think that we really have a lot of hard evidence at this time,” Zaslow added.
Instead of turning to cold plunging, Zaslow recommends good old-fashioned exercise to help you achieve some of the same perks. “We know that exercise helps with sleep, weight loss, stress management, all of those things ... and even pain management with certain components,” Zaslow said.
Instead of cold plunging, she said she emphasizes exercise because of the science-backed benefits that fitness brings. And, as far as cold plunging, more research is needed before the benefits can be solidified.