Ice baths, cold exposure and breathwork - why do it?

Downregulation Series


To kick off 2022 we’ve reflected on the questions our clients and members are frequently asking, and researched what is trending in the health and fitness industry. What we have found is that one of the hottest topics over the last few years has been recovery.


With recovery centres popping up in every suburb, we thought we’d dive into the details about two of the more common practices associated with recovery: Cold exposure (ice baths) and breathwork. 


Today, we’d like to give you all a bit more of an understanding of what these so-called “stress relieving” tools do in relation to actually relieving stress.


What is stress?

Stress is a system that activates parts of the body and brain and should not always be considered as a negative state. In fact, stress can be used positively for both physical and psychological benefits.

Psychologically, it is the shift in nervous states from parasympathetic to sympathetic (rest and digest to fight or flight). Mechanistically, acetylcholine is released when stressed, which stimulates epinephrine doing two things, activating certain systems and deactivating other systems.


Cold exposure & ice baths

One of the most popular “stress management” tools out there is cold exposure. In the last few years we have seen people jumping in bins filled with ice all over our social media feeds, plus new clinics opening that offer cold exposure therapy services.

Have you ever wondered why they have suddenly become so popular?

The most obvious reason is because of its instantaneous effect to put the body in shock, which in scientific terms, gives you a shot of adrenalin (epinephrine as mentioned above). If you think logically, when you feel fatigued it is common sense to splash water on your face to help “wake up”.

So why expose yourself to shock (more stress) to help you manage it?

What is interesting about exposing yourself to the cold and the related stress that comes with it is it gives you a chance to train your ability to “manage how you respond to stress” and its related outcomes, such as hits of adrenaline, vasoconstriction shortness of breath and more, which allows you to also manage your psychological response.

As a product of neuroplasticity, the more you practice managing your brain’s response to stressed states, the better your body will be able to handle them.

Think about a scenario when you are in a stressed state (eg. having an argument with your siblings) - your body and brain will respond the way it knows how. If you are well practiced at managing your psychological response to not react, you're able to manage your behaviours more efficiently during these states. 



The other popular tool that has had a huge influx of interest is breathwork. From Whim Hoff to Pranayama, the mechanistic sigh or cyclical hypoxia - you have probably come across something involving breathing and been told how good it is for you. 

What's actually going on with the breath and its relation to stress? 

Again, a bit of simple logic will help. 

When you get a shock, you tend to take a quick gasp of air in. When you feel relief, you tend to take a long slow inhale and let out a long slow exhale. 

From a more detailed perspective, when we do take long slow breaths (or sigh) the phrenic nerve (innervates the diaphragm) is activated and stimulates sympathetic nervous pathways in the body which directly impact your brain and its response - downregulating it. 

It is suggested that if you find yourself in a stressed state and you want to calm down, simply increase the length of your exhale to help your body's response to the state and give you more physical, neurological and psychological control.


What is even more interesting is that through breathwork, breath holding and generally lengthening and slowing your breathing rate, you influence your O2 and CO2 levels. Research is coming to light that by having better managed O2 & Co2 (through more effective breathing) we can become more alert, recover quicker and manage stress and anxiety better. For more reading on this topic check out this article and have a listen to this podcast - both involving Dr. Jack Feldman who is one of the top pioneers in breathing and neuroscience research. 


The biggest take home is that there are a number of mechanistic details at play when it comes to cold exposure and breathwork. What we do know is that both are extremely effective for stress management and we highly recommend making time available for one or both of these practices as part of your regular training program. 


So much so in fact, that as of Friday January 28 at 5:30pm we will be adding the SOF breathing class to our group fitness timetable. The focus of this weekly session is to provide an opportunity for our members to come and practice breathwork and expose themselves to a range of techniques where they can observe the physical, neurological and physiological benefits associated. 


Get in touch if you are interested and want to know more!