Hot & Cold Therapy Is About To Be Accessible To The Masses: How To Get In On It
When was the last time you intentionally sought out a stressful situation? The word "stress" in itself is bound to bring up twinges of worry, fear, and anxiety (not exactly emotions we hope to encounter). But over the past decade or so1, experts and researchers have started to talk more about the good type of stress. Specifically, hormetic stressors—and how the state of hormesis can benefit your body and mind. Enter: hot and cold therapy.
While these techniques may previously have been reserved for professional athletes, doctor's offices, and people with a lot of money to burn, devices such as sauna blankets, at-home infrared saunas, cold plunges, and cold therapy machines are blowing the recovery space right open. That's not to say this equipment all comes cheap, but thanks to the explosive rise of these at-home techniques, hot and cold recovery are becoming way more accessible, even mainstream, with no sign of slowing down any time soon.
Dare we call these devices the massage guns of 2023? Below, we dive deeper into the benefits of this good kind of stress, who's using these practices, and what to expect from hot and cold therapy in the year to come.
Hormesis: The kind of stress we can get behind.
If you've spent your whole life trying to avoid stress, it may be tough to wrap your head around the idea of running straight toward it. But chances are you've experienced or at least heard about, the health-boosting benefits of practices like intermittent fasting, trips to the sauna, or jumping into a cold body of water—in which case, you're already more familiar with hormesis than you may think. These are all examples of hormetic stressors, each with the same intention of signaling an adaptive stress response in your body. Even a standard high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class triggers some level of hormesis2.
The difference between hormetic stress and anxiety-inducing stress is that the conditions of hormesis are controlled. For example, you can choose how many minutes to spend in a cold shower or how long to keep the heat cranked up in your sauna blanket. These brief, moderated stressors are often all our bodies need to be jolted out of homeostasis and into hormesis, signaling healthy stress responses that help repair cellular damage3, eliminate toxins, reduce inflammation, boost immunity4, and increase longevity.
"The concept of hormesis is simply that if you apply a little bit of stress to a system it will get better," explains Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., founder of Extreme Human Performance. "The takeaway is you don't have to push really hard to see positive adaptations. If you precondition the cells or expose them to a little bit of stress they do become bigger, better, and more adaptive to that stressor, so therefore your recovery should be a little bit better."
Per a 2020 research review5, there are even experts who believe that not embracing these hormetic stressors can put you at a disadvantage as it relates to health and longevity.
How can hot and cold therapy make us healthier?
With the extensive benefits experts have uncovered, it's no wonder athletes have been leaning into practices like cryotherapy6 and ice water immersion for years. A 2018 study of athletes showed that three minutes of whole-body cryotherapy after high-intensity exercise significantly increased energy intake in athletes7. More recently, people have started using practices like cold plunging, cold showers, and cryotherapy to boost the metabolism, improve inflammatory response, support better sleep, decrease muscle pain, and swelling, and boost the immune system8.
Frequent exposure to extremely cold temperatures has also been associated with combating obesity9. Longevity expert and Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, Ph.D., explains this on a recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, saying, "Cold plunges are increasingly thought to be helpful. What [they do] is activate the production of brown fat, which exists mostly in your back. Brown fat puts out signals that increase your metabolism."
And cranking up the heat packs a beneficial punch, too. A 2021 study showed that three to seven sauna sessions per week reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease development, stroke, and high blood pressure by about 50%10. Additional research has shown skin improvements11 (such as more balanced pH levels and better hydration) in people who visit saunas regularly.
The benefits aren't all physical, either. Hot and cold therapy are impactful for our emotional and mental health as well, with significant reports of cold therapy reducing depressive symptoms12 and improving mood13 and cognitive function. Similarly, regular sauna usage has been shown to increase energy levels and support a better mood overall.
On another recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, neurologist Dale Bredesen, M.D., author of The End of Alzheimer's, spoke specifically of the benefit regular sauna usage has on your brain. "There was a very famous study out of Finland a few years ago showing that as people increased their sauna use per week from one or two to six, they decreased their risk for developing dementia14," Bredesen says.
More recently, TikTokers, wellness influencers, and celebrities like Jewel, Brie Larson, Lady Gaga, Lizzo, Cindy Crawford, and Kourtney and Kim Kardashian have shared their love for saunas, sauna blankets, cold plunges, and cold showers, bringing a practice once reserved for professional athletes right into the mainstream.
Fitting hot and cold therapy into your routine.
Spas and fitness centers have been utilizing saunas for a long time, but more wellness centers are popping up with specific focuses on different types of hot and cold therapy. For example, wellness-focused social club Remedy Place in New York and Los Angeles houses private infrared saunas, ice back classes, whole-body cryotherapy chambers, red light therapy, and even a private contrast suite where you can group your private infrared sauna session with double ice baths. New York City alone has plenty of hot and cold therapy studios such as Chillspace for Cryotherapy sessions and Clean Market for saunas, cryotherapy, and more. You can expect these types of wellness centers to continue popping up across the country.
Brands and wellness studios are bound to lean into contrast therapy as the next big thing, combining the benefits of hot and cold therapy. Katie Kaps, co-founder and co-CEO of HigherDose (the brand behind an infrared sauna blanket our co-founder and editors love), confirms this, saying, "We built our business on the belief in infrared therapy as the ultimate way to detox, improve sleep, reduce inflammation and support muscle recovery. Cold therapy pairs perfectly and we're exploring ways to expand the HigherDOSE spa and consumer experience with contrast therapy."
Similar to the hot yoga you may have been practicing for years, heat-based fitness classes and classes in extremely cold temperatures are meant to instill the same state of hormesis. Studios like Burn Collective, Heated Room, HOTWORX, and Hot Phiit are tapping into these hot and cold therapy techniques, combining them with exercise for even more benefits.
Most studies look specifically at ice baths, cryotherapy, and saunas, but simpler methods such as cold showers and warm baths have similar health-boosting benefits. Wim Hof recommends taking cold showers daily, with a simple protocol to ease into the practice by gradually increasing the length of your showers, while decreasing the temperature. With time, you'll become more accustomed to the practice. The resilience you build toward a small stressor like cold water will then start to show itself in other areas of your life—and the cold water can also do wonders for the health of your hair and skin. Once you see and feel the benefits, you'll likely look forward to these chilly bursts.
On another recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, Mark Harper, M.D., Ph.D., cold therapy expert and consultant anesthetist at Sussex University Hospitals, spoke about how cold water immersion can impact your well-being by reducing your body's inflammatory response, among other health-boosting benefits. Of no-cost methods, Harper prefers baths over showers, but his highest recommendation is outdoor swimming. "One of the great things about sea swimming is being out in nature," he says. "It's the whole package, which I think is really important. It's also more likely to keep you doing it." For baths and showers, Harper tends to recommend three minutes total and to put your face in the water three times. "You get a bonus effect from putting your face in the water," he explains, as it stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can reduce inflammation.
On the hot therapy front, a randomized study measuring the physical and mental effects of warm baths showed a significant improvement in general health, mental health, and emotional and social functioning scores15 in those who bathed in warm water regularly. Plus, the practice can be incredibly relaxing and is equally easy to incorporate into your mindfulness and recovery routine. And, while they unfortunately don't have the same hair and skin benefits as their cold counterpart, hot showers are also a good way to relax your muscles and release toxins from your body. Additionally, more studies need to be done, but a few have suggested that raising your body temperature in this way can help improve your mood and ease depression16.
At-Home Devices: New hot and cold therapy devices are hitting the scene day after day, allowing us to reap these benefits from our very own homes.
- Many brands are hitting the market with cold plunge tubs, making it way easier to integrate cold water therapy into your daily routine. We've narrowed down our top picks here.
- There are plenty of at-home sauna options ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to higher investments you'll have for years to come.
- For those who don't have the space for a full sauna, or don't love the intense feeling of being surrounded by heat, infrared sauna blankets like this pick from HigherDose have made the benefits even more accessible.
- Therabody has launched an entire line of products utilizing hot and cold therapy for recovery, including a hot and cold knee recovery device, a back and core hot and cold massager, and hot and cold ring attachments for the TheraFace Pro.
- If you're looking specifically for the skin benefits, there are a slew of devices specifically designed for your face, such as ice rollers and red light therapy devices that incorporate heat, like our editor-favorite Solawave wand.
In terms of how often you should practice these techniques, Nelson says, "They can be beneficial to everyone" and that shorter, more intense bursts are better than extensive periods of time in harsh conditions. He adds that you'll want to make sure you're also prioritizing other aspects such as training, nutrition, and sleep. "Once you have those down at 80 to 90%, I do think you can add some other hormetic stressors to [your routine]."
As with any new practice, Nelson advises speaking with your doctor before adding these into your day-to-day.
Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., suggests doing "deliberate cold exposure" for at least 11 minutes per week total. Each session should be between one and five minutes in length, with about two to four sessions per week for best results. In his protocol, Huberman notes that this 11 minutes total is the minimum to achieve the benefits of cold exposure and that the water should be "uncomfortably cold yet safe."
He also suggests basing your protocol on your own mental "walls," setting a specific number of mental walls you will hit before getting out of the cold water. For example, simply getting into the ice bath or cold shower could signify one "wall" for you. On his podcast, Huberman says, "Start recognizing these walls as an experience of resistance in you, and going over those walls. Set a certain number of walls that you're going to go over on a given day and do that at a given temperature." On this, he notes that some people who dread the practice will even experience the resilience-building norepinephrine and epinephrine increases before they even get into the shower.
Takeaway of the trend.
Ultimately, the practice of inducing good stress to reduce negative stress is not going anywhere. Hot and cold therapy techniques such as infrared saunas, infrared sauna blankets, cold plunges, cold showers, and cryotherapy are bound to stay center stage for the time being—and we suspect experts will only continue to get more strategic about ways to put your body through stress to support overall health and longevity.
Carleigh Ferrante is the Commerce Editor at mindbodygreen. She is a certified Health & Nutrition Coach and a born and raised New Yorker with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Psychology. Her work has appeared in Bustle, The Zoe Report, PureWow, The Everygirl, and more, covering topics such as fitness, travel, home, fashion, beauty, and dating, sex, and relationships. When she’s not testing and reviewing products and services, you can find Carleigh training for her next World Major marathon, planning her next vacation, or interviewing experts on her dating podcast, Mostly Balanced.