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Cold water therapy: What are the physical and mental health benefits?

A cold dip may not sound appealing, but the health benefits of cold water therapy might persuade you to give it a try

cold water therapy benefits
Melanie Macleod
Melanie MacleodWellness Editor
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Famous faces including Fearne Cotton, Joe Wicks and Amanda Holden are all converts to cold water therapy, with Fearne regularly taking dips in the chilly British sea, while Joe Wicks favours an ice bath and even has one at home, but what is it about cold water therapy that makes it so addictive?

MORE: Amanda Holden wears nothing but a swimsuit in freezing sea - and fans are in shock

Eight celebrities, including Strictly's Dianne Buswell, rapper Professor Green and actress Tamzin Outhwaite, are about to find out, as they're taking part in new BBC show, Freeze the Fear, which sees them take on freezing cold challenges, trained by 'The Iceman' Wim Hof.

WATCH: Helena Christensen stuns fans with a freezing cold dip wearing a swimsuit 

While that is a little extreme for most of us, there are impressive health benefits, both mental and physical, to be gained from cold water therapy.

What is cold water therapy?

Cold water therapy, also referred to as cold body therapy or cold therapy, is simply being exposed to cold temperatures.

Cryotherapy is one option, loved by presenter Emma Willis, but this tends to be expensive. At home, you can try a short cold shower, a bath filled with ice or a swim in cold water. All count as cold water therapy.

emma willis cold water therapy© Photo: Instagram

SEE: Emma Willis freezes in a cryotherapy chamber

What are the benefits of cold water therapy?

We agree, a dip in a freezing body of water does not sound tempting, but the mental and physical health benefits are enough to persuade us to dip a toe in the chilly pool.

What are the mental health benefits of cold water therapy?

Fearne Cotton has spoken openly about how much cold water swimming helps her mental health, writing on Instagram in March 2022: "In the last week, I’ve upped my cold water therapy. I managed to get to the sea at the weekend and then took a dunk in my mate's ice bath yesterday.

"Each time it gets a little easier and each time I’m more aware of the benefits."

She continued: "My anxiety has been sky high this last week so these moments where my brain can only focus on my deep breaths have been necessary."

MORE: 15 wellness trends to try that will help manage your anxiety

READ: 6 easy ways to manage anxiety and make you feel like yourself again

Indeed, Dr. Sarah Brewer, medical director of supplement brand Healthspan, and a cold-water swimmer herself, agrees: "Cold water immersion stimulates endorphins to improve mood to help combat stress, anxiety and depression."

"Cold water keeps you in the moment, so it's the ultimate form of mindfulness," Dr. Brewer continues. "It helps to achieve calm meditation as you focus on your breathing."

fearne cotton ice bath© Photo: Instagram

Fearne Cotton partakes in ice baths and cold water swimming

Studies support the mental health benefits of cold water therapy too. Research by Swim England for World Mental Health Day found that of those who partake in cold water swimming regularly, 43 per cent said it made them feel happier, 26 per cent felt more motivated to complete daily tasks and 15 per cent said life felt more manageable after cold water therapy.

Ali Phillips, who instructs wild swimming sessions at the Lake District spa Armathwaite Hall explains that cold water therapy gives us a chance to switch off – ideal if you find your mind still whirs during yoga or breathwork sessions. 

"Once you're immersed in the cold water you are fully in that experience and forget about everything else," she says. "Although cold water therapy is not prescribed as medicine, people are encouraged to take part if they suffer with mental health issues."

What are the physical health benefits of cold water therapy?

According to Dr. Sarah Brewer, cold water therapy can improve circulation, reduce water retention and even regulate blood pressure, as it improves the responsiveness of blood vessels.

In addition, exposure to cold water can help support our immunity, because it increases the supply of powerful antioxidant glutathione, which is important in our immune response.

View post on Instagram

Fearne Cotton takes a dip in the icy English sea

Plus it delivers a real energy boost according to Joe Wicks, who takes an ice bath every morning.

Cold water therapy for menopause

Wim Hof writes on his website that cold therapy is linked to improved sleep and focus, making it helpful if you're perimenopausal. 

Indeed, many women approaching menopause, including journalist Lorraine Candy say that cold water therapy helps clear brain fog and sharpen focus.

Menopausal health brand MPowder even hosted masterclasses on the benefits of cold therapy for women in midlife.

Cold water therapy for weight loss

Dr. Sarah Brewer notes that cold water therapy can help with weight loss, because it speeds up your metabolism. 

"Your metabolic rate increases by at least 80 per cent during a cold swim, to help your body maintain your core temperature of 37 degrees," she explains. "You burn calories to stay warm, plus the energy used by shivering mostly comes from stored fat."

Cold water therapy for exercise recovery

Immersing your body in cold water can help to reduce muscle ache post-workout (that would be why Joe Wicks loves it!) because it reduces inflammation, plus it can prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

joe wicks ice bath© Photo: Instagram

Joe Wicks takes a daily ice bath

How long does cold water therapy take to work? 

Ali notes that the benefits of cold water therapy can often be seen straight away, in the calming of the mind. "I know I feel instantly better afterwards," she says. "Just getting into the water immediately makes you feel better and gives you the chance to switch off."

Dr. Sarah Brewer notes that just one to two minutes of cold therapy is enough to leave you feeling good all day, while just 10 to 20 seconds of exposure to the cold starts the burning of fat for heat.

Joe Wicks said he starts every day with a two or three-minute ice bath, or a cold water shower, but we can't all be as fit as him…

How to get used to cold water therapy

According to cold bath aficionado Joe Wicks, it's all in the breathing. "I used to hate it, but I built up my tolerance," he says. "My max ever was 10 minutes but it was agony. The key is to keep dead still. If I move it's painful."

3 cold water therapy must-haves:

Part of the fun of taking on a new hobby is getting all the kit for it, right? If you're jumping into the pool of cold therapy with cold showers, these buys aren't necessarily needed, but if you're going headfirst with cold water swimming, Dr. Brewer recommends the below…

dry robe cold water swimming

Dryrobe Changing Robe, £160, Ann's Surf Cottage


Seen everywhere in trendy Brighton and St Ives in Cornwall, a Dryrobe is *the* bit of kit for cold water swimmers. It acts as a towel, a post-swim coat and a changing room.

roxy wetsuit cold water swimming

Quiksilver Roxy Wetsuit, £165, Surfdome


Dr. Brewer points out a wetsuit won't take away from that "ahhh!" moment when you're first submerged, but will help you stay warmer for longer, so that has to be a benefit?

cold water swimming gloves

TWF 3mm Gloves, £9.99, Amazon


Granted, these don't look very glamourous, but when your hands are toasty inside, you'll be thankful for them. The same goes for a hat and socks made from the same material.

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