What are the benefits of cold showers?

Why it's worth braving the chill…

benefits of cold showers

While the prospect of a post-workout ice bath fills most runners with dread, more and more of us are braving the chill in our everyday lives, in order to reap the purported mental and physical health benefits the cold water offers.

Indeed, the trend of cold water therapy is on the increase, thanks in part to Wim 'The Iceman' Hof – a man so fond of the cold that he holds the current world record for swimming under ice, and also ran a half marathon above the Arctic Circle. Barefoot. Just for kicks.

Wim believes that ditching the comfort of your centrally heated home in favour of the outdoor elements comes with a 'cascade of health benefits', including enhanced sleep and a fortified immune system.

How cold should a cold shower be?

Before you turn that temperature dial right down, you'll probably be pleased to hear that a cold shower doesn't mean freezing. In fact, a temperature of 21°C or lower classes as cold (although while this is far from 0°C, be warned – this will still feel pretty chilly). Basically, if it feels uncomfortable, you've probably gone cold enough!

How to start taking cold showers

There's no one-rule-fits-all approach when it comes to taking cold showers. If you're feeling super resilient (and brave!), you might feel able to turn down the heat and dive right under, but it's also fine to take things at a slower pace.

One of the gentlest ways to ease yourself into your cold shower is to turn the temperature down at the end of your regular shower, for a quick 15- to 30-second blast. You can then increase the time of your cold exposure from there, building up to several minutes. Ultimately, it’s about what works best for you, as everyone is different. With some trial and error, you'll figure out which method you find most tolerable and, dare we say it, enjoyable!

Are cold showers safe?

Remember, though, that cold showers aren’t for everyone. If you have a history of heart conditions, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system or any concerns as to whether cold showers would be of benefit to you, it's important to seek medical advice from your GP first.

Are cold showers good for you?

There's no denying the popularity of cold water therapy right now – with everything from open water swimming to lido dips on the increase. Cold-water enthusiasts tend to wax lyrical about the alleged health benefits of plunging into icy depths – but is all this splashing about in cold water good for us? Cold showers are probably the most accessible and cost-effective way to get in on the trend – but why should you give it a go?

Well actually, some of the claims are grounded in research. Here are nine cold shower benefits that are backed up by science…

9 health benefits of a cold shower

1. A cold shower can help you recover from a run more quickly

As a runner, you're probably pretty familiar with the theory that an ice bath after training can promote recovery. So you won't be surprised to hear that the principles behind taking a cold shower are very similar.

‘Cold generally stimulates a response of the blood vessels, which causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels),’ says Hasit Jethwa, health and fitness tutor at The Training Room.

‘Essentially, this occurs in order to direct the blood to where it’s needed the most, in this case, vital organs. So, blood is forced to return to the heart where it can then be transported to the lungs to replenish and this oxygenated blood can then be pumped around the body, meaning you are now getting fresh oxygen and nutrients to the right areas.

'The cold also helps to reduce any potential inflammation you might experience post exercise, which can help to speed up your recovery, and reduce your aches and pains.’

2. A cold shower might boost your mental heath

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that taking cold showers can make you feel happier, but there is also research that backs up the claim. According to a study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, taking cold showers for two to three minutes, once or twice a day (preceded by a five-minute 'adjustment period' of slowly cooling water) could help to relieve symptoms of depression. The team found that exposure to cold activates the sympathetic nervous system and, due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, sends lots of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain.

If you're suffering from anxieties or worries, taking a cold shower can help to take your mind off them, as the shock of the cold water forces all your attention into the present moment – a sort of cold-water mindfulness exercise.

3. A cold shower can provide pain relief

If you've ever iced a swollen ankle or sore knee post-run, there's a good reason – as well as helping to reduce inflammation, cold can have anaesthetic-like effects. That's according to a study published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences, which explains that cold constricts blood vessels, reducing swelling and it also potentially slowing the rate at which pain signals are transmitted to the brain.

4. A cold shower might support your immune system

While further research into this claim is needed, one 2016 study found that participants were 29% less likely to call in sick to work when they practiced the hot-to-cold approach of showering.

‘This is supposedly due to the increase in metabolic rate caused by the shock of temperature change,’ says Jethwa. ‘Your body then accelerates its functions, in order to try and compensate.’

5. A cold shower can make you feel more focused and alert

If you've ever stepped beneath a cold shower, you'll know that the low water temperature can be a shock to the system, the effect of which can last for several hours after the shower has taken place.

It happens because when your body is placed under stress (in this case, because of the cold exposure), your sympathetic nervous system goes into its 'fight, flight or freeze' response, making you feel instantly more focused and alert. However, the physical stress also means your need for oxygen greatly increases, causing a higher breathing rate which floods the body with more oxygen. Because of this, you may find you carry this feeling of heightened alertness with you into your day.

6. A cold shower can support fat loss

Several studies have found that cold exposure may help to support fat loss, thus protecting against obesity. While many of the studies have been done on rodents, one human study, published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, found that cold exposure has the same effect on us, too. It found that cold acclimation activates brown fat in the body – the type that actually burns calories in order to generate more heat in the body.

7. A cold shower can improve your complexion

A blast of cold water from the shower each morning could do wonders for your skin's health and appearance. To start, the cold water temporarily closes your pores, in an attempt to conserve body heat, which can give you a smoother complexion. The cold water also constricts blood vessels, helping to reduce blotching and redness. Switching from hot to cold in the shower each morning can also help to ease skin irritation and itching, as the cooler water temperature doesn't strip away your skin's protective oils and lipids in the way that hot water does.

8. A cold shower can help you better manage stress

In a study from 2000, researchers placed participants in 14°C water for one hour. Extreme? Yes… but the cold did trigger a reduction in levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – in the body. We would not advise replicating the study and spending this amount of time in cold water, but a short, sharp blast of cold water in the shower each morning may just do the trick too!

9. A cold shower could improve your circulation and heart health

As a regular runner, your ticker is hopefully already in tip-top condition, thanks to the fact that running supports healthy blood flow, as well as reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But cold showers could be an addition to your heart-health regime: cold water causes your blood to rush to your internal organs to help them stay warm, which promotes blood flow. And this improved circulation is associated with better cardiovascular health, which in turn helps to keep your heart happy.

But don't forget, cold temperatures force your heart to work a lot harder to keep your body warm, which could, according to the British Heart Foundation, put your health at risk. If you are at all concerned about heart health, consult your GP before embarking on cold water therapy (which includes taking cold showers, ice baths and open water swimming at certain times of year).

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