Take the Plunge

Ice Baths, Cryotherapy + Where to Dive In

Last winter, my husband tried to get me to do a cold plunge. I lasted 30 seconds, and there’s a video of me climbing out of the tub at Gravity Haus Vail saying, “This is terrible. Why would anyone do this?”

Many months later, I understand a bit more why people do it — thanks to my favorite podcast The Deep Dive with Jessica St. Clair and June Diane Raphaelfor challenging listeners to do a single cold plunge. Since then, I’ve been cold plunging three to four times a week for three to four minutes at a time. “Really,” a friend asked me, “you?” Yes. Even me.


Winter swimming and ice bathing have a long, cross-cultural history. Although Scandinavian community ice baths became popular in the 1800s, it’s believed that the tradition began centuries before, and even as far back as the Finnish stone age. Ancient Greeks and Romans were known to use cold baths, as were ancient Japanese Samurai warriors. Cold plunging has roots in traditional healing practices across the world, and it is often viewed as part of a larger, sacred practice.

Where one could see cold plunging as a social media trend (TikTok’s Jordan Ferrone has over 1.6 million followers watching his daily ice bath, and the platform’s #coldplunge tag has over 500 million views) or a fleeting movement in the wellness space, cold water immersion has a long history with devoted followers to the practice. From winter swimming being touted as a way to combat the winter blues to cold plunging being a method for invigorating the senses to achieve a natural high, there’s definitely something in the (cold) water.


Athletes have long used cold water immersion, or ice baths, as a way to recover following strenuous activity or helping to return to sport after an injury. Ice baths are believed to aid in muscle soreness and reduce inflammation. Targeted icing, like ice packs and ice machines, are a proven tool to aid in recovery from injury or surgery.

Because there have not been many studies related to the impacts of cold-water immersion and cold therapy, some of the presumed benefits — increasing metabolism, relieving stress — are theoretical. But these are based in science, nonetheless.


While you’d expect something called brown fat to have a bad reputation in health and wellness discourse, it’s actually the opposite. According to Cleveland Clinic, brown fat — also referred to as brown adipose tissue — is “a type of body fat that regulates your body temperature in cold conditions.” This type of adipose tissue stores energy, and it activates in cold temperatures. Brown fat burns calories by creating heat right before the body begins to shiver.

Because cold water immersion triggers one’s brown fat to activate, it is believed that regular cold-water immersion can increase metabolism. Moreover, researchers hypothesize that the practice of cold plunging can increase one’s brown fat, which allows for more tissue to help regulate glucose and fat metabolism.


Cold plunging has a reputation for helping relieve stress and improve mood. Just look at Scandinavians who hype winter swimming as a way to cure the blues of long, dark winters by shocking the body into a happier state. But, how does that work?

Cold exposure triggers the body into fight-or-flight mode. And, when the body is in that state, it releases stress hormones, elevating levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. That’s why many people describe the effects of cold plunge as a natural high.

A scientific article from the International Journal of Circumpolar Health entitled “Winter Swimming Improves General Well-Being” demonstrated that, after a four-month period, swimmers who participated in the study had a decrease in tension, negative moods and fatigue.

The swimmers felt more energetic and active than control participants when the study was completed. Swimmers who had diagnoses of painful conditions like rheumatism reported that winter swimming had reduced their pain.

Because winter swimming and cold therapy reduce inflammation, it makes sense that individuals would experience pain reduction from regular cold therapy. But, inflammation isn’t explicitly tied to physical health; it also promotes brain health. The combination of the fight-or-flight response and inflammation reduction helps participants in the practice feel a reduction in stress.

"It’s recommended to accumulate 11 to 12 minutes during the course of a week. Four days of three-minute plunges each week hits a sweet spot for reaching cumulative benefit"


The idea of cold plunging can be daunting — just watching videos of people plunging in icy water can send second-hand shivers through you. In my first attempt, the 30 seconds I lasted were painful. What I didn’t know at the time was that that first part of a plunge — the shock — is temporary. Once I attempted a three-minute plunge and got through those first painful seconds, it was really meditative. My timer went off, and that was it.

The recommended temperature for a cold plunge is 10-15 degrees Celsius (50-59 degrees Fahrenheit) to achieve the presumed health benefits. While it’s up to the plunger on what temperature to soak in — many prefer icier water closer to freezing — there isn’t evidence of more health benefits from being in colder water. (This was great news for me.) My bathtub tap runs at 54 degrees, making my cold plunging something I can do right in my bathtub, without the need for extra equipment or ice.

To achieve prolonged benefits from cold plunging, it’s recommended to accumulate 11 to 12 minutes during the course of a week. Four days of three-minute plunges each week hits a sweet spot for reaching cumulative benefits.


Remember brown fat and how it activates just before the body starts to shiver? Shivering is a great marker for one’s longevity in a plunge; once the body begins to shiver (typically two to three minutes), the health benefits are reached. Staying in the plunge longer is not necessary, and experts don’t recommend staying in very cold water longer than 10 to 15 minutes.

Plunge up to the chin. Submerging the neck in cold water stimulates the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

Air dry and get active! Although it may feel comforting reaching for a fluffy towel post-plunge, letting the body come back to its normal temperature on its own prolongs the effect of the plunge. Doing something active right away, like squats or jumping jacks, increases blood flow and furthers the benefits of the cold soak.

It’s recommended to plunge early in the day because of its energizing benefits.


Recovery Lab Vail, located in the Ritz Carlton in Lionshead, offers a variety of recovery treatments, including cryotherapy. Kordi
Brown shared that where cold plunging is often linked to long-term lifestyle changes, visitors to the lab are looking for something more immediate.

“Most people who do cryotherapy are looking for quick recovery,” she shares. “We work with a lot of people who have experienced an acute trauma on the mountain or are recovering from surgery and looking to accelerate their healing process.”

Cryotherapy is used locally to reduce inflammation. It’s similar to icing or ice machines, but it’s more targeted and quicker. Kordi
gave me a treatment, applying the cryo device to my wrist for about eight minutes. It was very cold — reaching -8 degrees — but not unbearable. A soothing ultrasound liquid provided a nice buffer to the skin while she moved the device around the wrist and forearm. The treatment was cold but soothing.

Depending on the injury, visitors to Recovery Lab Vail may do several treatments or one or two. People often include the lab’s hyperbaric chamber as part of their treatment plan, accelerating the healing timeline. Recovery Lab also has IV therapy, an oxygen bar, compression treatments and more; it offers patrons an expansive line of services with the goal of quick, accelerated recoveries.




Because cold water immersion shocks the system, it can have dangerous effects on individuals with heart conditions. It is recommended that people with heart conditions or diabetes do not attempt cold therapy.

The closer to freezing temperatures, the riskier a plunge can be. Wearing protective hand and feet coverings is recommended in very, very cold water. Prolonged exposure in the extremities can lead to extreme sensitivity to cold, so it’s important to take precautions.


Cold plunging isn’t the only cold therapy game in town. Cryotherapy is the medical term for using cold temperatures for a health benefit. It can include everything from freezing away warts to removing diseased tissue inside the body. Where cold plunging involves full-body immersion, cryotherapy is often used for more localized treatments.


If you told me a year ago that I would be writing this article from the perspective of a person who has embraced cold plunging, I wouldn’t have believed you. But, I’ve found that regular cold plunging has given me energy and clarity. Whether you’re looking for a (literally) immersive experience or something more targeted, it might be time for you to catch the cold.