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Dipping a toe into cold water therapy

A big wellness trend over the last few years, cold water therapy is really having its moment in the sun. So, what is it and should you test the waters at home?

It may be enjoying a lot of attention right now, but cold water therapy is not a new idea. It's long been a practice in colder parts of the world and plenty of sporting teams subscribe to recovery regimes that include immersion in ice baths.

We've been told for years that a blast of cold water at the end of a shower can have numerous benefits from the physical — a purported increase in metabolism, immunity boost and a reduction in inflammation — through to mental health benefits including a lift in mood and heightened endorphin release. Despite all of this good news, it can be pretty hard to turn the tap all the way to 'cold' on a frosty winter morning. 

What the Hof?                                    

Probably the most well-known proponent of cold water therapy is Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete who also goes by the moniker 'The Iceman'. He's renowned for being able to withstand extreme cold and has set plenty of records for activities undertaken while being exposed to ice, snow and freezing water temperatures.

Hof has even devised his own program — the Wim Hof Method — for keeping 'your body and mind in its optimal natural state', according to his website (wimhofmethod.com). The method focuses heavily on breathing, cold therapy and meditation. Hof suggests we've lost natural defences developed in our earlier evolution because we're no longer exposed to the unforgiving environments that forced us to maintain sharp, clear minds. He seems pretty keen to reverse the effects on our modern bodies of a life spent largely indoors, on screens and in comfort.

He believes there are plenty of health benefits including fat loss, fortified immunity, hormonal balance, better sleep and an upshot in endorphins. Of course, you'll need to sign up for all the details of Hof's method but, anecdotally, it appears to incorporate breathing techniques designed to introduce high levels of oxygen into the body. These are seemingly first practiced out of water, followed by another set of the same exercises while immersed in an ice bath or similar.   

Outsourcing...or DIY?

If you Google 'ice baths near me', you may be surprised at the available options. Well, at least you would have been before COVID-19 caused the closure of many small businesses over the last two years. The point is, search results indicate that people are interested in cold water and other cryotherapies and these treatments are available at a range of venues including gyms, wellness centres and specialist clinics.

For those that would rather keep it on home turf, there are plenty of portable tubs, baths and inflatable solutions. It's not uncommon to see a wheelie bin commandeered for the purpose, either. After all, you only need access to water, ice and a steely sense of determination. General recommendations require that the water temperature be between 10 and 15°C and you'll need to tough it out for around eight to ten minutes, according to popular opinion. 

All of that being said, it should be noted that there is no real evidence to suggest any measurable benefits are derived from ice bath immersion. Supporters have suggested that it does deliver a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness after exercise but this seems like a pretty loose conclusion to draw, to be honest. 

Not necessarily medically recommended...

Not only are the supposed benefits difficult to prove, many medical professionals heartily warn against the practice of ice bath immersion, suggesting that hypothermia, shock and even sudden death from cardiac arrest are all possible outcomes. 

...but could be a matter of degrees

So, it seems that a full ice bath immersion might be a bridge too far for many reasons, but that doesn't mean abandoning cold water therapy entirely. Recreational ocean swimmers all over the world swear by a winter dip — in Australia it's a badge of honour to be part of winter swimming club's like Bondi's infamous Icebergs, which requires members to regularly swim Sundays from May till September each year. 

For pool owners across most of Australia, our reasonably mild winters can make swimming at home an easy entry point into the world of cold water therapy. If you decide you want to take the plunge into cold water swimming, be sure to seek medical advice beforehand to confirm it's okay for you to do so. It's probably also wise to have someone keep an eye on you, just in case you come into any trouble. Don't stay too long in cold water — keep moving and keep your swim brief. When you get out of the pool, don't delay in drying off and removing wet items before dressing in something warm. Have a hot drink and a little food before hitting the shower to avoid any extreme body temperature changes.

It seems like cold water therapy — in many of its forms — comes with quite a few safety considerations. Coupled with a lack of proof around declared benefits, it's hard to recommend the practice without a lot more investigation and ideally, conversation with some converts. Maybe the key to kicking off is as close as your nice, warm indoor bathroom with heated floors and towel rails. A short, sharp icy blast at the end of your shower is a step in the cold water therapy direction and will certainly let you know you're alive....we’re just not sure if Wim Hof would approve! 

Break out box

If you do decide to dive in to cold water swimming

  • Seek medical advice beforehand to ensure this is a safe option for you

  • Always have someone nearby keeping an eye on you

  • Don’t stay too long – keep moving and keep your swim brief

  • Don’t delay in drying – remove wet items, dry off and dress warmly

  • Have a hot beverage – and perhaps a little food

  • Delay the hot shower – extreme body temperature changes can have a negative effect

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