The fitness world has been buzzing about a unique method for weight loss: ice baths, otherwise known as cold thermogenesis. Before you take the plunge, let’s dive into understanding their effectiveness for weight loss and how you can get the most out of your session. It’s currently a topic of debate, with a blend of fact and fiction. Here's a breakdown of what is true, and what isn’t:
- Caloric Expenditure: When you step into an ice bath, your body goes into overdrive to maintain its core temperature, essentially meaning you burn calories during the process. However, to manage your expectations, the number of calories burned in an ice bath is relatively small, so to make it an efficient method for sustainable weight loss, it is best paired with healthy eating and frequent exercise.
- Fat-Burning Potential: One intriguing aspect of cold exposure is its potential to activate brown adipose tissue (BAT), a type of fat that burns calories to generate heat. When exposed to cold, the body activates BAT. This process begins with sensory nerves detecting the cold and signalling hypothalamus. Once the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, a chain of events are triggered, causing brown adipocytes to release heat instead of energy. This heat is distributed throughout the body to maintain core temperature.
However, the extent of BAT activation varies among individuals due to factors like genetics and age. Cold exposure, like ice baths, can stimulate BAT activity, but responses vary individually. Some studies have suggested that cold exposure increases BAT activity, which could contribute to long-term fat loss and plays an important role in regulating metabolism.
And yes, there’s a difference between weight loss and fat loss!
- Spot Reduction: Ice baths are often marketed as a way to target specific areas of the body for fat loss, such as belly fat. Unfortunately, it's time to dispel the myth of spot reduction as we cannot selectively lose fat from one area of the body by any natural means, and therefore not by exposing it to cold temperatures.
- Primary Weight Loss Method: While ice baths may contribute to a slight increase in calorie expenditure, they should not be seen as a primary or effective method for losing weight. Sustainable weight loss primarily depends on a balanced diet and regular exercise.
However, there are more health benefits to ice baths than supporting weight loss. So, let’s get into those now...
Cold water exposure is directly linked to improving mental health. Within the first 30 seconds of the body being exposed to cold water, the forebrain, which controls decision-making, is suppressed in its activity, while other areas are ramped up. This helps alleviate the initial shock one feels when in cold water.
It’s this initial shock that triggers a prolonged release of dopamine and epinephrine – which is what can result in such a positive impact on your mental health. The extended release of dopamine leads to a near doubling or more of normal dopamine and epinephrine levels. While normal exercise or other substances can spike dopamine, there is no exercise or substance that can increase it to that level for such an extended period.
Remember, you should consult a doctor or a healthcare professional before incorporating ice baths into your routine, especially if you have any underling medical conditions, or if you’re simply unsure about how your body may react to such treatments.
To conclude, ice baths can support weight loss and improve metabolic health, however these are not the only benefits of using them and there is a lot of evidence related to the mental health benefits. Whether you are using ice baths primarily for exercise recovery or for mood and resilience effects, you can now add fat loss to the list of reasons to use cold therapy regularly.