Remember the ALS ice bucket challenge? If you forgot (because a lot has happened since the challenge trended in 2014), allow me to jog your memory: people doused themselves in ice-cold water, nominated a friend to participate and raised millions of dollars for ALS research.
But another icy trend is taking over social media these days: ice baths. In the simplest terms, ice baths are exactly what they sound like. You immerse yourself in ice-cold water. Purported benefits include anti-aging, stress relief and recovery. Ice bath trends have gotten prime real estate on the Instagram grids of celebs like Harry Styles and Lady Gaga.
While you may rock out to Styles and Mother Monster, it's worth mentioning that people should always take a beat before following a health and wellness trend—even ones touted by musicians.
"It’s important to examine whether there is any reliable evidence supporting the claims," says Dr. Marzena Gieniusz, MD, an internist/geriatrician in the Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine with Northwell Health. "Unfortunately, it is often not easy to identify this because of so much unreliable information out there posing as evidence. Sometimes, the risks or harms of these trends become evident only after the trend becomes popular and enough people try it and experience complications."
Still, a person over 50 may be interested in the ice bath trend, hoping it can speed up recovery or slow aging and stress. But is an ice bath worth it (or safe) for this 50+ crowd? A pair of experts gave the cold, hard truth.
Dr. Gieniusz says an "ice bath"—another name for "cold water immersion" (CWI)—involves people hopping into a tub full of icy water, typically around 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
"They're hoping to gain some health benefit, whether for pain relief, decreasing inflammation or boosting the immune system," Dr. Gieniusz explains.
The trend isn't new.
"The routine of taking cold plunges after an intense workout or competition has been common practice for centuries," says Matthew Kampert DO, MS, ACSM-CEP, a Cleveland Clinic staff physician of Sports Medicine and Endocrinology who works extensively with the 50+ population."More recently, however, these practices have been better studied through research that evaluates the pathways that are activated or made inactive by this icy environment."
Hence the trending nature.
When you step into a tub full of icy water, your blood vessels begin to constrict, Dr. Gieniusz explains.
"This constriction causes a reduction in blood flow, lactic acid build-up, swelling and tissue breakdown and induces stress which activates the body’s natural defense systems," Dr. Gieniusz says.
Dr. Kampert adds that ice baths also provide a mental jolt. "Your body releases endorphins, or feel-good hormones, in response to the shock of the cold therapy, which can generate mental clarity and elevate mood," Dr. Kampert says.
One 2018 study also indicated that cold stimulation may aid in stress reduction.
Much of the buzz around ice baths has to do with their ability to soothe muscle soreness and speed up recovery."The jury is still out on this when it comes to these ice baths," Dr. Gieniusz says.
A systematic review published in the Journal of Sports Medicine in 2022 showed ice baths could help with recovery following high-intensity workouts, including reduced muscle soreness and increased muscular power.
"Ice baths can be an effective tool for your training, but it depends on what your goal is," Dr. Kampert says. "They can be beneficial if the athlete is trying to improve recovery by decreasing inflammation from an acute injury or workout."
Older research, like this 2012 study, showed some evidence that cold-water immersion could lower delayed onset muscle soreness post-exercise compared to just resting or not attempting a recovery intervention. Still, Dr. Kampert gives caution it has potential drawbacks.
"This can also blunt the activation of pathways which are important for your body's repair and long-term adaptation processes contributing to increases in skeletal muscle growth and strength," Dr. Kampert says. "If you're competing in a multi-day event, ice is a great way to keep your muscles feeling good."
Neither expert who spoke to Parade was willing to give credence to the idea that ice baths turn back the hands of time. "Claims of cold plunges promoting energy and rejuvenation are still not confirmed," Dr. Gieniusz stresses. "It is thought that cold exposure may play a role in reducing systemic inflammation, which may be a contributing factor in chronic diseases that accelerate aging."
Another hypothesis centers around the idea that ice baths speed up the metabolism to reduce the effects of aging, but Dr. Kampert agrees that more evidence is needed.
Ice baths are not without risk, so experts stress that people, particularly those over 50, should exercise caution before immersing themselves in one. "Significant risks to exist—including things like hypothermia or immersion hypothermia, which is a dangerous drop in body temperature," Dr. Gieniusz says.
Cold shock is another risk. "[Cold shock] can involve loss of breathing control, impaired mentation, and problems with heart and blood pressure," Dr. Gieniusz explains.
These are life-threatening risks. Dr. Kampert says another is less severe but still problematic. "If the desired goal is building strength and muscle size, exercisers may want to avoid ice baths following training sessions," Dr. Kampert says, citing a 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiology that showed reduced long-term muscle mass and strength gains with the use of cold plunges.
It depends, but one expert shared they certainly wouldn't dive in. "Older adults are more likely to have medical conditions that increase their risks of complications and often have lower reserves for managing stress than younger adults," Dr. Gieniusz says. "Therefore, their risks are higher than the younger population."
Dr. Gieniusz advises patients to speak with their doctors. Dr. Kampert agrees, particularly if you have certain conditions. "Ice baths are an acute stress on the body, and patients with unstable heart conditions should seek consultation from a physician," he says.