Just Add Ice: Benefits of Ice Bathing for Firefighters
By: Jason Villeggiante
By now we’ve all seen videos on social media of people taking ice baths. Most of us who played sports in high school can remember ice baths as a remedy used by athletic trainers for gridiron warriors after a tough football game or practice.
I’ll be honest when I first began seeing videos of social media personalities such as Wim Hof sitting in cold ice water, I thought it was just another kooky angle to gain followers and attention online. I was wrong. Dr. Susanna Soeberg sums up the benefits quite nicely, “Cure bad stress with good stress.”
Cold exposure for your health
In layman’s terms, deliberate cold exposure is known as an adversity trigger; the idea that short, intermittent bursts of stressors can actually trigger a cascade of cellular processes that enhance overall health, boost metabolism, slow aging, and make you more resilient to future stress, both physical and mental. Through the “Soeberg Principle,” named after Dr. Susanna Soeberg, a scientist from Scandinavia, maximum benefits in increasing core body metabolism are reached with 11 total minutes per week of deliberate cold exposure. This could be three minutes on Monday, four minutes on Wednesday, and three minutes on Thursday. After just eight weeks of this practice, participants were found to have had a 5% reduction in abdominal fat/white fat cells.
The ultimate mood booster
The benefits for mood were reflected by the 250-300% increases in dopamine production with a regular cold plunge practice. The increase in dopamine production is greater than in both tobacco and cocaine. Unlike cocaine, there is no sharp “rise” and “crash”. Cold plunges provide a sustained rise in dopamine over three hours. Increased dopamine was found to last in the body for up to six hours after an ice bath/cold shower. This practice can help battle mental disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.
The benefits of improving mental resilience are also found with an ice bath practice. During an ice plunge, studies show there is a 30-80% decrease in cognitive function. Brain areas associated with stress & panic go way up-similar to what could take place at a high-stress incident. Dr. Andrew Huberman, a tenured professor of neurobiology from Stanford University states, “Anchoring your mind in cognitive activities(math problems/SOGs/Recalling the entire cast of Backdraft) as you get into the cold can be very helpful for maintaining clarity of mind; not as a form of distraction, but as a way to maintain clarity of thinking. To learn how to maintain composure when the body is flooded with chemicals that make us stressed.” Teaching your mind how to stay online/engaged while experiencing high levels of stress (in this example a tub of cold ice) is a great way to improve fire ground composure. For fire ground operations, there is no substitute for physical manipulation of equipment and practicing on drill days. Ice baths however provide a way to improve your mental aptitude when in the thick of a stressful scenario.
Just add ice
If you are interested in trying this practice the first question that is probably on your mind is how cold should the water be. People have different thresholds and tolerances for the cold. Typically 60 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit is a good starting point. If you can say yes to, “Whoa, I would really like to get out of this environment, but I can stay in safely,” then you’re at the right temperature. Becoming uncomfortably cold, but confident you can stay in for a minute or two without risking your health is ideal. As a safety disclaimer, approach an ice plunge with caution. People have and do die from cold shock. Don’t jump into a frozen lake on your next vacation to Idaho if you’ve never done so before.
The next question you’re probably wondering is how you incorporate cold plunges into your cardio or weight-lifting routines to maximize gains. Dr. Huberman answers this and many other questions in his Huberman Lab Podcast episode, “Using Deliberate Cold Exposure for Health & Performance.” In summary, an ice bath prior to weightlifting is acceptable. If however, you decide to lift weights before an ice bath, to maximize hypertrophy gains wait four hours after lifting so as to not reduce/diminish strength gains. For cardiovascular training, an ice bath prior to or after training is acceptable.
The cost of an icy plunge
For such a low time and low financial investment to reduce body fat, improve mood and improve mental resilience, it’s surprising how our department has not already incorporated ice baths into what should be at this point an expansive Firefighter Wellness program. Most fire stations already have an industrial ice machine; every fire station should be issued an “Ice Barrel” from the department, for this 3-5 minute practice. With the pandemic now thankfully behind us, a majority of members have had to deal with an ever-increasing workload, recalls, and mental health strains.
In “High Performance Habits,” author Brendon Buchard states, “If you’re working at a company that isn’t promoting exercise, and all forms of well-being – your safety, health, happiness, and sense of fulfillment, be wary. Companies that don’t care about their employees’ well-being don’t perform as well as their competitors.” Clearly, it’s on each of us to look out for one another to take control of our own well-being and health because no one else is going to do it for us including upper management.
Creating your own health initiatives
To support our fellow brothers and sisters, it’s become apparent that we need to create our own internal initiatives for wellness and mental health to support one another. Firefighters helping fellow Firefighters. For those struggling with depression, suicidal ideation, or burnout a great resource that discusses mental health in the fire service is the “Grablives” podcast by two of LA City’s own Firefighter-Paramedics Trevor Stepan & Jonathan Vargas available on Apple & Spotify Podcast services.
Author Ryan Holiday describes the philosophical reasons behind doing unpleasant things such as ice baths in his book, Discipline is Destiny, “Most of us spend our lives building up walls between us and anything unpleasant. The whole point of success, we feel, is to never have to struggle. Hot water, nice clothes, and food delivered to our door all on demand. Still, we must understand that the modern world is conspiring against us, working to degrade our ability to endure even the slightest difficulty. Success breeds softness. It also breeds fear. We become addicted to our creature comforts. By seeking out discomfort we toughen ourselves up. The fact of the matter is that someday, life will have serious discomfort in store for us. Are we going to dread it? Or just be ready?”
Take care of yourselves and take care of each other.
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