Ice baths and hot and cold showers are advocated to increase immune function, reduce inflammation and blood pressure, and improve recovery. Some new research suggests that ice baths can even be used to treat obesity. Many professional athletes will use cold therapy and hot showers after intense workouts to reduce stiff muscles and muscle damage to accelerate recovery. Cold temperatures constrict blood vessels and reduce inflammation, much like taking Aleve or NSAIDS.


SUMMARY OF ICE BATHS FOR FAT LOSS

  • Ice baths for fat loss have not been proven to reduce body fat.
  • Cold exposure does increase BAT and calories burned, but the studies suggest you need to be exposed to cold exposure for > hour.

  • The small amount of increase in BAT activation will likely cause a trivial difference in losses in body fat.

  • Cold therapy has many potential health benefits, but using cold exposure to reduce body fat is not warranted.


ICE BATHS FOR FAT LOSS

Ice baths and hot and cold showers are advocated to increase immune function, reduce inflammation and blood pressure, and improve recovery. Some new research suggests that ice baths can even be used to treat obesity.

Many professional athletes will use cold therapy and hot showers after intense workouts to reduce stiff muscles and muscle damage to accelerate recovery. Cold temperatures constrict blood vessels and reduce inflammation, much like taking Aleve or NSAIDS.

DO COLD SHOWERS HELP OUT WITH SORE MUSCLES

Hot water causes an increase in blood, whereas cold showers reduce body temperature and inhibit blood flow.  As you will read below, contrast shower benefits athletes more psychologically than physically.

One study found that hot and cold water showers (1 minute each) consisting of 38 degrees Celsius and 15 degrees Celsius after intense exercise were associated with improved well-being (i.e., athletes felt better), but this did not reduce muscle damage.

A 2017 review of the literature of 23 studies also found that cold and hot showers did not reduce muscle damage after exercise (Higgins et al., 2017; Juliff et al., 2014)

ICE BATHS FOR FAT LOSS: COLD TEMPERATURES INCREASE BROWN ADIPOSE TISSUE

There are three types of adipose tissue: white, brown, and beige. Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is rich in mitochondria and results in more calories burned than other adipose tissue. BAT burns extra calories to keep you warm during cold exposure. BAT decreases as we age.

Many have suggested that increasing cold exposure increases calorie burning and lose weight. The number of calories burned from cold exposure varies from person to person, but most studies suggest a 15% increase. (Trexler et al., 2017; van Marken Lichtenbelt & Schrauwen, 2011)

Here are the studies looking at cold exposure and calories burned:

Study 1: Researchers examined brown fat in Scandinavian men who practiced cold dips in water followed by a hot sauna. The researchers look at calories burned, bodyfat%, etc. The researchers measured the number of calories burned at normal temperatures and during cold exposure (i.e., 195 minutes). The winter swimmers had lower body fat than the controls (12% for winter swimmers vs. 18% for controls).

ice bath temperature contrast shower benefits do cold showers help with sore muscles how long to sit in an ice bath pros and cons of ice bath

There was no difference in calories burned at rest; however, after cold exposure, the winter swimmers also had a greater increase in calories after cold exposure than the controls. (Søberg et al., 2021) Remember that these people were exposed to cold exposure for > 1 hour.

ICE BATHS FOR FAT LOSS STUDIES  

Study 2: Researchers had subjects exposed to cold exposure (61-degree Fahrenheit/ 16 degrees Celsius). The researchers divided the subjects based on their genetic profiles as either thrifty phenotype (i.e., burn fewer calories while dieting) or spendthrift phenotype (i.e., burn more calories while dieting).

The researchers found that those with the thrifty phenotype or those who have a harder time losing weight resulted in less increase in BAT during cold exposure. Despite this lesser increase in BAT during cold exposure, there was no association between BAT and the number of calories burned. (Hollstein et al., 2021) The researchers suggested that this blunted effect of BAT activation to cold exposure may have been a contributing cause of obesity in some people.

ice bath temperature contrast shower benefits do cold showers help with sore muscles how long to sit in an ice bath pros and cons of ice bath

 Study 3: A study measured the effects of wearing cold exposure devices (i.e., a vest with ice packs around the upper chest/back and waistline). The subjects also drank cold water while wearing the cold exposure device. Drinking cold water can also increases a small number of calories burned. (Boschmann et al., 2003)

The subject wearing the cold vest and drinking cold water had increased fat mobilization and increased calories burned. The subjects wore the vest while not shivering and when they were shivering.  The increase in calories burned is below:

 The subjects wearing the cold vests had increased calories burned and fat mobilization. (Grove, 2019)

ice bath temperature contrast shower benefits do cold showers help with sore muscles how long to sit in an ice bath pros and cons of ice bath

 Study 4: A review of the literature found that examining the results of 10 cold exposure studies found that cold exposure can increase BAT activity, heat activity, and metabolism. Most studies had subjects sit in cold exposure for 1-4 hours. (Huo et al., 2022) The ice bath temperatures or cold exposure temperature was 16-19 degrees Celsius.

IS COLD EXPOSURE FOR FAT LOSS WORTH IT?

So how many extra calories do you burn with brown adipose tissue? One study reported that you burn about <20 kcals daily, about 2 minutes of moderate-intensity running. (Muzik et al., 2012) Cold exposure does increase calories burned, but using cold exposure for weight loss will likely produce trivial fat loss.

In sum, cold exposure does increase calories burned and fat mobilization, but not enough for significant fat loss.  A frequent question is, “how long to sit in an ice bath for fat loss?”  Most people will sit in an ice bath for 15 minutes or so; however, based on the research, you need to be exposed to cold exposure for longer than an hour for changes in BAT activation.

The drawback of cold exposure is that it is well-documented to increase appetite. Other studies have found that cold exposure can inhibit muscle growth. The most serious risk for those with heart conditions is the initial shock when entering cold water. (Shattock & Tipton, 2012; Tipton, 1989)

REFERENCES

Boschmann, M., Steiniger, J., Hille, U., Tank, J., Adams, F., Sharma, A. M., Klaus, S., Luft, F. C., & Jordan, J. (2003). Water-induced thermogenesis. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 88(12), 6015-6019. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2003-030780

Esperland, D., de Weerd, L., & Mercer, J. B. (2022). Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate. Int J Circumpolar Health, 81(1), 2111789. https://doi.org/10.1080/22423982.2022.2111789

Grove, P. E. (2019). Use of the “Cool Fat Burner” in conjunction with drinking of cold water is associated with acute and minor increases in energy expenditure and fat metabolism in overweight men and women. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 59(7), 1238-1243. https://doi.org/10.23736/s0022-4707.18.09010-2

Higgins, T. R., Greene, D. A., & Baker, M. K. (2017). Effects of Cold Water Immersion and Contrast Water Therapy for Recovery From Team Sport: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res, 31(5), 1443-1460. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001559

Hollstein, T., Vinales, K., Chen, K. Y., Cypess, A. M., Basolo, A., Schlögl, M., Krakoff, J., & Piaggi, P. (2021). Reduced brown adipose tissue activity during cold exposure is a metabolic feature of the human thrifty phenotype. Metabolism, 117, 154709. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.metabol.2021.154709

REFERENCES

Huo, C., Song, Z., Yin, J., Zhu, Y., Miao, X., Qian, H., Wang, J., Ye, L., & Zhou, L. (2022). Effect of Acute Cold Exposure on Energy Metabolism and Activity of Brown Adipose Tissue in Humans: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis [Original Research]. Frontiers in Physiology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2022.917084

Juliff, L. E., Halson, S. L., Bonetti, D. L., Versey, N. G., Driller, M. W., & Peiffer, J. J. (2014). Influence of contrast shower and water immersion on recovery in elite netballers. J Strength Cond Res, 28(8), 2353-2358. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000417

Muzik, O., Mangner, T. J., & Granneman, J. G. (2012). Assessment of oxidative metabolism in brown fat using PET imaging. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne), 3, 15. https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2012.00015

Shattock, M. J., & Tipton, M. J. (2012). ‘Autonomic conflict’: a different way to die during cold water immersion? J Physiol, 590(14), 3219-3230. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2012.229864

Søberg, S., Löfgren, J., Philipsen, F. E., Jensen, M., Hansen, A. E., Ahrens, E., Nystrup, K. B., Nielsen, R. D., Sølling, C., Wedell-Neergaard, A. S., Berntsen, M., Loft, A., Kjær, A., Gerhart-Hines, Z., Johannesen, H. H., Pedersen, B. K., Karstoft, K., & Scheele, C. (2021). Altered brown fat thermoregulation and enhanced cold-induced thermogenesis in young, healthy, winter-swimming men. Cell Rep Med, 2(10), 100408. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.xcrm.2021.100408

REFERENCES

Tipton, M. J. (1989). The initial responses to cold-water immersion in man. Clin Sci (Lond), 77(6), 581-588. https://doi.org/10.1042/cs0770581

Trexler, E. T., McCallister, D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Branca, R. T. (2017). Incidental finding of low brown adipose tissue activity in endurance-trained individuals: Methodological considerations for positron emission tomography. J Nat Sci, 3(3).

van Marken Lichtenbelt, W. D., & Schrauwen, P. (2011). Implications of nonshivering thermogenesis for energy balance regulation in humans. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 301(2), R285-296. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00652.2010

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