Ice bath vs hot bath – which offers the greatest health benefits, and what are the differences?
Both ice baths and cold baths offer a range of surprisingly comprehensive health benefits, whether you are looking to soothe and heal injured or overworked muscles, lower your blood pressure, reboot your entire immune system or simply relax and de-stress.
While both hot and cold baths can help you relax and prepare you for athletic performance, both can also promote a quick recovery and help prevent injuries in the wake of high intensity workout.
But which one is better, which one best suits your purpose, and how do you harvest the benefits of both hot and cold treatments?
Keep reading to learn more.
Key benefits of cold water immersion
Cold therapy, also called cold water immersion, is particularly among athletes and is often recommended by physical therapists as a means of alleviating muscle pain and soreness – particularly in the aftermath of strenuous workout.
Cold baths should be between 10–15° Celsius, or 50–59° Fahrenheit and last between ten and fifteen minutes (or shorter, if you’re new to icy baths and haven’t yet worked up your cold tolerance).
While you can experience high-end cold therapy at dedicated hydrotherapy clinics, it is also possible – not to mention easy – to prepare ice baths at home.
In order to do this, you’ll need a few implements to hand: A bathtub or other waterproof receptacle (the bigger the better. If you want to immerse your entire body, nothing smaller than a bathtub is going to work), ice cubes, a thermometer (this is very important, as you’ll ned to make sure that the water isn’t too icy. You want to stay between 10–15° Celsius), and an alarm that allows you to keep track of time. It is not recommended that you stay in an ice cold bath for longer than 10-15 minutes, as lowering your core body temperature for prolonged periods of time could be dangerous.
All right, now that we’ve covered the basics and established that cold therapy is accessible to anyone on almost any budget, let us look at some of the benefits associated with cold water therapy – including the remarkable ability of cold therapy to boost your immune system and prevent injury. Ice bath benefits include, but are by no means limited to, the following.
Lowers high blood pressure and heart rate
One of the most remarkable effects of ice baths is that extremely cold temperatures stimulate blood flow.
The cool temperatures of ice baths force your blood vessels to constrict, which in turn lowers your blood pressure and even your heart rate. If you are someone who suffers from too high blood pressure, this benefit is going to be particularly welcome.
Boosts overall immune system
Lowering your core body temperature activates your Vagus nerve, which is the central nerve connecting and regulating the different aspects of your parasympathetic nervous system. The effect is a fully awakened, fully alert immune system that is ready to take on any incoming intrusions and challenges such as viruses, bacteria, stress and fatigue.
Soothes muscle soreness and speeds up recovery
Ice baths are one of the favourite recovery methods among professional athletes, as exposure to ice water can help prevent delayed onset muscle soreness.
The recovery benefits of cold water immersion are manyfold – soaking in ice water can reduce swelling and inflammation, prevent acidity build-up, and help alleviate and heal the muscle tears that tend to happen during intense workout.
If you suffer from a health challenge that might put you at risk of suffering ill consequences from extreme cold exposure, you should steer clear of ice baths. You might still be able to experience many of the same benefits from taking a cold shower, but without putting yourself at undue risk.
Key benefits of hot baths
Now that we have taken a good look at some of the health benefits associated with taking ice baths, let us look at the counterpart -warm water therapy.
Heat therapy delivers similar results to cold therapy, with a few notable differences and additions.
A hot water bath should be as hot as you can tolerate, but no higher than 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Just as with icy water therapy, there is such a thing as taking it too far when it comes to the other end of the spectrum.
Just as with cold plunging, there is no hard-and-fast rule about how long you should be staying in the hut tub or hot shower, but 15-30 minutes is a good timeframe to aim for. Once you have built up your heat tolerance, you can extend your warm bath soak to around 45 minutes.
Overall, what really recommends heat therapy is its ability to alleviate the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Keep reading to learn how, in detail.
Loosens stiff muscles
The first thing you are going to notice when you immerse yourself in a hot bath is how the hot temperature relaxes you by relaxing and loosing up your muscles. If you suffer from chronic muscle pain or stiffness, you can combat its effects on you with hot water therapy.
Another positive benefit of hot water immersion that anyone can enjoy is how it makes your entire body relax and ease up – this is great, whether or not you have any physical pain. When your body relaxes, your mind tends to relax, too.
Exposing your body to heat lowers your cortisol levels. Cortisol is also referred to as the stress hormone, and when your cortisol levels are high, your body is in constant fight-or-flight mode, unable to relax. Lowering your cortisol levels is the quickest short-cut to greater physical and mental wellbeing.
While decreasing cortisol, hot water also increases serotonin.
Higher levels of serotonin, also called the happy hormone, boosts your mood and creativity. When your brain is releasing serotonin, even the darkest of moods is eased and lightened.
Improves sleep quality
When both your muscles and your mind are fully relaxed, you are guaranteed to get a better, deeper night’s sleep than you would otherwise.
Stabilises insulin levels
Yet another potential health benefit of hot water immersion – although there still isn’t enough scientific evidence to fully support this – is that hot water might help stabilise insulin levels. This is great news if you suffer from diabetes or any other condition that causes your insulin levels to be unstable.
Hot temperatures amplify your body’s natural immunity, as you are essentially sweating out the toxins and pathogens when your body is immersed in hot water.
Avoid hot baths if you have heart problems or have a tendency to dizzy spells. Most of us have probably tried stepping out of a hot tub, only to experience sudden dizziness when we get up – falling and slipping on a stone bathroom floor is a bad idea.
Ice bath versus hot bath Q&A
We’ve looked at the primary similarities and differences between cold and hot baths, but you may still be left with some questions. Hopefully, you’ll find the answers to them here.
Which is better – ice bath or hot bath?
Where ice baths or warm baths are going to work best for you depends on the results you want to achieve.
If you are an athlete and your aim is either muscle relaxation or to shorten your recovery time between workouts, ice baths are the way to go. If, on the other hand, your goal is to alleviate anxiety, depression or insomnia, hot baths are your best option.
Should I do a hot bath after ice bath?
Taking a hot shower or bath immediately after a cold plunge is often a great idea. Not only does this switch between cold and hot temperatures ensure that your body’s core temperature is brought back up again – it also allows you to harvest the benefits of both hot and cold water in one bathing session.
How long should you be in an ice bath?
You should never stay in an ice bath for more than 15-20 minutes.
How long should you be in a hot bath?
You can comfortably stay in a hot tub for longer than you can an ice bath. 30-45 minutes is a good timeframe to aim for.
Hot and cold water both come with an incredible range of benefits, from muscle recovery, injury prevention, mood boosting and immunity amplification.
Whether you decide to go for hot or cold therapy – or a combination of both – is up to you and should depend on what your specific goals and aims are.