Ice bath therapy for first responders: Physical and mental benefits of cold water
Are you ready to take the plunge? Learn how ice bath therapy can benefit EMS providers in their everyday lives as well as on duty
Below, columnist Joshua Lee explores the physical and mental benefits of cold water therapy for first responders. Some of the most recognized and researched cold therapy mental benefits are stress reduction, reduced cortisol levels, mood enhancement and improved mental resilience.
Has your department started to include wellness trends, such as cold therapy, heat therapy and more within its wellness program? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share photos or videos of your department’s ice bath therapy participation and we’ll include it in an upcoming article!
Before you start taking ice baths, be sure to consult with your doctor first to ensure it’s safe for you. People with heart conditions, who take specific medications and older adults may be at higher risk of experiencing complications. Additionally, an ice bath, much like a pool or hot tub, should have controlled access to prevent children from accessing the ice bath without adult supervision. This could lead to accidental drowning, which is the leading cause of death for children 1 to 4 years old.
Last, but not least, before you start taking ice baths, be sure to consult with your doctor first to ensure it’s safe for you. People with heart conditions, who take specific medications and older adults may be at higher risk of experiencing complications. Additionally, an ice bath, much like a pool or hot tub, should have controlled access to prevent children from accessing the ice bath without adult supervision. This could lead to accidental drowning, which is the leading cause of death for children 1 to 4 years old.
First responders who are constantly exposed to physically and mentally demanding situations need to find effective methods to enhance their wellbeing and recovery. Finding the right solution can be difficult, time-consuming and frustrating. But the single most influential tool I discovered for both body and mind has been cold plunge therapy.
Cold plunge therapy, also known as ice bath therapy or cold water therapy, is an ancient practice that has gained popularity in recent years due to social media. A typical cold plunge is when a person submerses their body up to the neck with near-freezing water. I am glad to see so many athletes, weekend warriors and normal everyday citizens incorporating cold plunge therapy into their weekly routines.
With that said, there is a lot of confusion on how to properly do it and how to get the most out of your cold plunge sessions. This article will explain how to time your cold plunge therapy to maximize both the physical and mental benefits.
Extreme cold therapy, like what you will experience during a cold plunge, has been known to help physiologically and mentally. But if you are using this tool for both the mind and the body, pay close attention to how you are incorporating it into your training. Incorrect use can hinder progression.
FOR THE BODY
Cold plunge therapy causes a rapid release of endorphins which can alleviate pain, enhance mood and boosts the immune system. I personally have noticed a significant improvement in my immune system since I started cold plunge therapy. Cold also stimulates vasoconstriction, which will reduce inflammation and promotion healthy blood circulation – making it a perfect tool for recovery.
All these benefits sound impressive – and they are – but if your main goal is to build muscle, timing your cold plunge for optimal muscle growth is critical. Cold water can inhibit muscle breakdown and inflammation – slowing down the damage caused by strenuous exercise. For that reason, if your goal is to gain muscle, time your ice baths on the days you are not lifting weights.
There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. For example, if you had a particularly hard workout where you pushed your body to the max, like running a marathon, competing or setting personal records on lifts, a cold plunge can help the body quickly recover so you can get back to training. That is why many professional sports players do it after practice. They need to recover fast so they can practice harder.
FOR THE MIND
Ice baths and cold plunges were invented for physical health benefits. The discovery of the mental health benefits was completely accidental. Cold therapy triggers a range of psychological benefits, making it an ideal adjunct therapy for first responders who face constant physical and mental challenges in their line of duties.
Some of the most recognized and researched cold therapy mental benefits are stress reduction, reduced cortisol levels, mood enhancement and improved mental resilience. Controlled discomfort will also help an individual develop resilience and a great sense of mental fortitude. Mental resilience is something that all first responders need.
Furthermore, if you use advanced breathing techniques, like the Wim Hof Method, cold plunge therapy can be a form of deep meditation.
When I finish a cold plunge session, I feel like all my worries, anxiety and stresses are left in the water. It truly is an odd feeling to be worry-free, at least temporarily. This sudden release of negative emotions is mainly caused by the vagus nerve that winds throughout the body. Cold stimulates the nerves, which gives your nerves a workout and releases endorphins.
If your focus for cold plunge therapy is on both the mind and the body, you will want to limit cold plunge therapy to the days you are not lifting weights. However, if you have recently experienced a critical incident or are highly stressed, just take the plunge without worrying about its impact on muscle development.
In recent years, many fire departments, police departments and EMS agencies have recognized the immense benefits of cold plunge therapy for their personnel. By incorporating this practice into their wellness programs, first responders are finding increased resilience, accelerated recovery from physical exertion and improved mental wellbeing. As a result, they are better equipped to navigate the challenges and pressures of their profession while maintaining their commitment to protecting and serving their communities.