June 5, 2023
Most mornings after Stephen Garten wakes up at his home in Austin, Texas, he goes into his backyard and starts pacing, preparing himself for what’s next, reports The Wall Street Journal.
“It’s brutal,” says Garten, 37, the founder and CEO of social impact company Charity Charge. “It’s a real challenge every day.”
He’s talking about lowering himself into a 66-inch-long and 24-inch-wide stainless steel tub clad in customized zebrawood and submerging himself up to his neck in water that he sets at 39 degrees Fahrenheit, with water circulating at 1,400 gallons a minute. “It’s like being in a river,” he says of the flow rate produced by this particular vessel, a Blue Cube cold plunge.
It’s an experience that Garten typically tolerates for less than two minutes at a time, once or twice a day. And it comes at a price of $19,000. Blue Cube, based in Redmond, Oregon, makes cold plunge units that cost between around $18,000 and $29,000.
“Cold plunging has made a profound difference in my life,” Garten says. He says it has brought him health benefits including stress management.
Previously the domain of athletes, bathing in cold water or ice has become a mainstream wellness trend nationwide. The practice goes by many terms, like cold plunging, ice bathing and cold-immersion therapy. Water temperature below 59 degrees Fahrenheit is generally considered cold immersion. People who swear by it say they have experienced wide-ranging health benefits, like reduced anxiety, alleviated joint and muscle pain and boosted energy and focus.
But while many people are experimenting with do-it-yourself methods—like taking cold showers or filling kiddie pools, horse troughs, and unplugged chest freezers with cold water or ice—some enthusiasts have leveled-up their at-home cold plunging setups with sophisticated receptacles priced at tens of thousands of dollars and up.
Developers, meanwhile, are adding cold plunges to amenity-rich luxury complexes like 53 West 53 in New York City and Cipriani Residences Miami,—betting that cold immersion is here to stay.
“Ice bathing seems like a trend, but people have been doing this for thousands of years,” says Jonathan Coon, co-founder of Austin Capital Partners, which is the developer of Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin, 20 minutes from downtown Austin, slated to open in 2026.
In addition to 188 residential units starting at $4.1 million, the Lake Austin property on 145 acres will have 76,000 square feet of indoor wellness and sports facilities—including a 12,000-square-foot orangery, 82-foot swimming pool, sauna, steam room; and, of course, cold and hot thermal baths.
Amenities covering 100,000 square feet is a key reason that Onyx W.D. Johnson and Cristian Santangelo bought a $2.2 million two-bedroom, 1,123-square-foot apartment in New York’s One Manhattan Square, an 80-story building located on the Lower East Side. Facilities include a spa with a tranquility garden, 75-foot saltwater swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, steam room, and hammam (steam bath) with a cold plunge set between 55 and 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The couple moved into the apartment in May 2021.
Johnson and Santangelo quivered at the idea of cold plunging until they started seeing other people dipping and discussing the health benefits. “We decided to give it a try,” Johnson says.
Now cold plunging is part of their wellness regimen. Johnson, 50, who runs a management consulting firm, uses the hot pool, steam room, and sauna; and then cold plunges for 45 seconds to a minute. He says this routine speeds up his training recovery time, helps him think clearer and improves his alertness and mood.
John Thorbahn bought a four-bedroom, 5,500-square-foot single-family home in Hingham, Massachusetts, south of Boston, in March 2020 for $1.6 million. He owns a cold plunge from Phoenix-based company Morozko Forge, founded in 2018. Morozko Forge’s entry-level unit costs $12,850; its upgraded version costs $19,900.
Morozko Forge’s ice baths make ice. While the stainless steel tub is filled with cold water, an ice slab starts building at the tank’s bottom. At about 1-inch thick, the ice detaches and floats to the water’s surface. The ice can be broken up with an implement like a rubber mallet if needed.
Thorbahn, 63, who is the managing director at consulting company NFP, ice bathes most days for two to three minutes at 33 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. His wife, Jana Thorbahn, 59, ice bathes, too. “The older you get, the more you want to live longer,” says Thorbahn, whose home also has a gym, sauna, red light therapy room, and hot tub. “You start investing in protocols to help you be healthy.”
While many cold plungers have developed their own ice bathing rituals, choosing everything from their preferred water temperatures to time limits, Susanna Søberg, a Danish Ph.D., metabolic scientist, and founder of the Soeberg Institute, is one of the world’s experts on the health benefits of cold immersion, which she has been studying for nine years.
In 2021, Søberg published research on cold exposure and hot exposure, which is called “contrast therapy” if the cold and hot exposures are performed in succession. Studying Danish winter swimmers, Søberg identified that a short plunge in cold, moving water combined with sauna use shifts the body’s nervous system and creates physiological changes, like boosting metabolism, lowering inflammation and releasing neurotransmitters that improve cognitive performance and mental health. “You are activating your whole body system,” Søberg says.
In a field that hasn’t been widely studied by the medical community, Søberg has developed what she says is the only scientifically backed cold immersion protocol for reducing stress using contrast therapy and breathing: 11 total minutes of cold immersion combined with 57 total minutes of heat, across two to three days a week. The goal of her method is to expose the body to the smallest amount of healthy stress needed to reap health benefits. “Staying in cold water or heat longer may not be beneficial or necessary,” she says.
Søberg says cold immersion carries the rare risk of cold water shock that can cause confusion or fainting, but the risk increases if a person does hyperventilating breathwork before or during cold water immersion. She also says cold plunging might not be good for people with heart disease or high blood pressure. Søberg advocates for cold plunging with others, and practicing slow, nasal breathing in the water.
Contrast therapy is why Sausalito, California-based company Yardzen says most of its cold plunge projects involve saunas. Yardzen is an online landscape and home-exterior design company that works with homeowners. The company’s co-founder and CEO Allison Messner says wellness yards—encompassing everything from cold plunges to saunas to meditation spaces to forest bathing—are among Yardzen’s top 2023 trends.
“Peak luxury is having both a cold plunge and a sauna in your yard so you can experience cold and hot therapy,” Messner says.
Tobias Lawry, 51, and his wife, Christine Lawry, 50, live in a three-bedroom 1963 Midcentury Modern house in Dana Point, California They purchased it in October 2018. Between July 2021 and October 2022, they worked with architect Chris Light, designer Frank Berry, and builder Crawford Custom Homes to renovate their 3,000-square-foot house to honor its original period intention while modernizing it. This included turning a bedroom into a wellness room, which opens into a backyard with a pool, sauna, and Blue Cube cold plunge.
The Lawrys, who run an estate-management and concierge services company called LPM, keep their Blue Cube at 47 degrees Fahrenheit. They typically cold plunge in the evening and on weekend mornings.
Stephen Garten in Austin also has a tricked-out wellness yard: In addition to his Blue Cube, he has a barrel sauna from Almost Heaven Saunas, which are manufactured in West Virginia and start around $7,500. He also has a stock tank pool from Cowboy Pools, an Austin-based company that has pool packages starting around $2,000.
He was inspired to create a backyard oasis where he and his fiancée, Katie Snyder, can have friends over. “It’s wellness,” Garten says, “but it’s entertainment too.”
Research contact: @WSJ