When you're visiting a state-of-the-art spa like Rancho Valencia Spa & Resort, you want to take advantage of all the unique treatments on the menu. So between sunbathing, massages, and body scrubs, I also decided to add a less-than-cushy wellness treatment with lasting health benefits to my pampered mix: a round of hydrotherapy bath contrasts. If you've never heard of this holistic approach, a hydrotherapy circuit is when you move between pools of extreme water temperatures to reestablish homeostasis for a stronger immune system, as well as enhanced mental focus, decreased stress levels, and higher-quality sleep.
As the spa director Kristi Dickinson explained to me, there are several reasons someone might practice this treatment, from acute traumas like a sprained ankle to daily healthcare goals like getting our bodies back on track if we feel run-down by daily stresses, which is why I chose to try it out. It sounds easy enough, and in theory, it is, but since I'd never tried it before, it was helpful to have a motivating guide to walk me through the process. So if you're curious about what hydrotherapy bath contrasts are all about, find out more details on the various outcomes and benefits, as well as how to do it, and then decide if this holistic treatment therapy is worth adding to your daily workout routine.
The Health Benefits
Though hydrotherapy bath circuits are a physical challenge, there's a method to the madness. It's sort of like working out. You push yourself through the pain in the moment to reap the health benefits later. As Dickinson explains, "hydrotherapy encourages the strengthening of the immune and respiratory systems, helps tone muscles," and promotes more "active and resilient circulation" by targeting our vital organs and optimizing their strength so the body can more easily maintain homeostasis. Here's where the temperature changes come into play.
Basically, "when the body is subjected to heat, it moves blood to the extremities (you also begin to sweat)." And then "when the body is subjected to cold, blood rushes back into the internal organs to protect them." So "by contrasting the temperatures and moving the blood in and out of the tissues, you create a detoxifying effect, as well as usher in fresh nutrients. As both blood and lymph are part of our circulatory system, there is an ancillary benefit of stimulating the lymphatic system and improving immunity."
And though the "main goals are stimulating circulation (flush out free radicals and toxins, and welcome in fresh nutrients), regulating metabolism, and breaking the chronic stress cycle," there are also a few beauty perks that come about as well. Some of the side effects include an "improved complexion, brighter eyes, and increased skin tone," Dickinson adds. Plus, "the increased oxygenation gives an energizing feeling. The rush also releases endorphins, creating a positive outlook" because it works on the "central nervous system" to improve cognitive function.
How to Do It
When I arrived at the spa in the early morning on an empty stomach, as instructed by the guide, I had no idea what to expect. First, I stepped into the steam room and checked my pulse, counting beats per 10 seconds (it should usually be somewhere between 11 and 18 beats). The goal is simply to sit back and relax until pulse increases to 20 to 25 beats a minute. It took about 10 minutes, and by the end, I was ready to switch over to the plunge pool for a change in temperature.
Though it was a shock to the system to dunk my head in the plunge pool, which was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it was still a relief. Luckily, the duration of this step is a lot shorter, so after about one minute of shivering with everything from my neck down in the chilly water, I made my way over to the hot tub. Again, it was great at first, but by the time my pulse climbed up to 20 beats per 10 seconds, I was desperate for the cold plunge. After another minute in the cold water, it was time to head to the sauna.
Personally, I love dry heat, and I enjoyed chatting with my guide, which made it a lot easier to sit through. But it took much longer for my pulse to speed up, so I felt super restless (and drenched in sweat) after 10 minutes. The best part of this step is that you get to grab a pile of ice, put in a towel, and rub your skin with it in circular motions before jumping into the cool plunge again. This is supposed to increase circulation and reduce the appearance of cellulite."The cold plunge sounds painful, but your body creates heat, and it is actually very relaxing," and surprisingly, I found this to be true.
Though I felt pretty exhausted right after I finished the bath circuits, I felt more energized that afternoon and evening and was more motivated to stay active than I usually am.
Tips and Tricks
- If you want to reap the health benefits of general wellness and stress reduction, you should try to do hydrotherapy bath contrasts circuits one to two times a week.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal before the circuit, and avoid drinking alcohol or anything depressive after the circuit.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the treatment as well as afterward.
- Dry brushing is a great complement to the treatment, especially for problem areas where you want to reduce the appearance of cellulite.
- Drinking ice water or placing a chilled towel on your head in one of the heat elements is tempting. but it will take you longer to raise your heart rate. Personally, I would rather sit through each element for a longer period of time than be extremely uncomfortable, so it's up to you. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot more when I had the ice bucket nearby.
- If you feel light-headed during the heat element, you should exit.
- Don't stay in the cold element for more than 60 seconds since it will have a depressive effect rather than stimulating effect.
- If you want to try this in a private setting, you can do it without anything on. Since I was doing a guided treatment, I wore a full one-piece and a few wore athletic shorts. Flip-flops are also a good idea for the sauna and steam room.
- Make sure you have a plush towel and a bathrobe waiting for you on the other side of the cold plunge pool.
- You can easily emulate it at home, too, if you have two bathrooms (one for a hot tub and one for a cold tub).
Nagaich U. Hydrotherapy: Tool for Preventing Illness. J Adv Pharm Technol Res. 2016;7(3):69.doi:10.4103/2231-4040.184586
Mooventhan A, Nivethitha L. Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body. N Am J Med Sci. 2014;6(5):199-209.doi:10.4103/1947-2714.132935