The health benefits of cold water swimming have long been suspected, from Victorians gathering in their bathing machines to the lido boom of the early twentieth century. Now science is starting to back up the anecdotal evidence with studies that suggest that there are lasting positive effects of a bracing outdoor dip.
Studies are still in the early stages and we are only just starting to understand how cold water immersion affects the human body.
An Increased Tolerance to Stress
Submerging yourself in cold water is not everyone's cup of tea. The temperature of the water creates a stress reaction in the body, the same kind of reaction we experience if we find ourselves in a scary or tense situation. The body releases the stress hormone cortisol and breathing frequency and heart rate increases. The body’s fight or flight mechanism kicks in, explaining why the natural reaction to getting into cold water is to want to get out as fast as possible.
As anyone who has braved an icy dip will know, the stress reaction recedes as you adjust to the temperature. There is now evidence to suggest that repeatedly putting your body through cold water immersion gradually reduces the severity of the initial stress reaction.
It may not be that cold water swimmers become acclimatised to the water, they just get used to their body’s reaction and the reaction itself becomes less severe.
The real magic is that the reduction in the stress response applies in other stressful situations, not just on exposure to cold water. Your reaction to other stressful events - taking an exam, bungee jumping - is also reduced.
A Boost to Self Esteem
The process of forcing yourself to stay in cold water could be increasing your mental strength. Getting out of your comfort zone builds confidence and courage as well as giving you a sense of accomplishment. By becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable you increase your resilience in other areas of life.
Swimming as a Mindfulness Exercise
When you immerse yourself in cold water you are sending your nervous system into overload. Nerve endings transmit responses to your brain, telling you just how cold parts of your body are.
Your brain only has limited bandwidth and with the intense sensation of the water to focus on there is no space left for your brain to go over your to-do list or worry about anything other than the cold. This focus on the present moment has much in common with mindfulness exercises and offers a welcome time out from the constant churning of our everyday thoughts.
Ice baths are used by elite athletes all over the world to aid post performance recovery. The science is simple, your body reacts to the cold temperatures by directing blood away from your extremities to protect the organs in your core.
The low blood flow to your limbs decreases inflammation and allows muscles to recover much quicker. A bracing dip can give you all the benefits of an ice bath.
The science isn't conclusive on this one but many swimmers report fewer coughs and colds than their non-swimming friends, and there is a theory to back it up. The stress reaction caused by cold water immersion is suspected to trigger an increase in white blood cell production, providing a natural boost to your immune system.
When you add together the physical and mental benefits of swimming then it is certainly plausible that there is a positive impact on the immune system.
Swimming in open water - especially sea water - may have beneficial effects on your skin. Salt water is awash with magnesium, calcium and potassium which is all good news for the skin. Sea water is also a mild antiseptic and may encourage damaged skin to heal.
Post Swim High
The fabled after swim high is a real thing, as the mix of exercise and cold water exposure triggers a release of dopamine, the body's feel good hormone. If you swim with a buddy or in a group the chance to share and compare your experience with like-minded people intensifies the experience.
The water may be chilly but there are plenty of reasons why pushing through your resistance and persisting with cold water swimming is a great thing to do for your health and well being.
If you're thinking of taking up the sport have a look at the Swim Secure Open Water Swimming Safety Guide for some tips on how to get started safely.