There is a delirious amount of hype that surrounds any activity that bears the word “healthy”. We are here to answer the big query behind the trend: Is cold water swimming as beneficial as they claim? And is it truly worth that searing shock that engulfs your entire being?
It’s impossible to trace the beginnings of mankind's deliberate plunge into the cold sea. What we do know for certain is that these intentional icy dips have been around for a very long time. One of the first written accounts of the benefits of cold water bathing can be traced back to 400 BC. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, discussed the potential of cold water therapy long before Jesus had the chance to turn water into wine.
Clearly, this pastime is no modern day invention. In Canada, the polar bear swim is a well known New Years Day tradition. In Norway, Finland and Sweden, ice swimming is inextricably linked to their culture of saunas and winter bathing. In Russia, every year, thousands of Arctic residents take an icy plunge to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Yet despite its long-standing existence, cold water swimming has, until recently, been limited to select groups of peoples; extreme athletes who revel in pushing their bodies to the limits or far-flung cultures where swimming in the cold is viewed as a necessity, not a hobby.
Today, it’s a different story.
Thanks to a modern wave of health claims (and a sensation named Wim Hof), millions of people across the world are making that courageous choice to ditch their winter coats and dive right in. Cold water swimming is everywhere and anywhere that warrants the use of a sweater. And who can blame them? The well-advertised claims are hefty. They say it can help with your headaches, your muscles, those extra 10 pounds, your lingering anxiety and even your overall immunity.
Could all of this be true?
We sifted through the health blogs and trendy documentaries, to see if there was any rhyme to their reason, and what we uncovered was a pile of overwhelming scientific evidence. There’s almost too much data to include in one article. For the winter water skeptics out there, we’ve learned that cold water swimming isn’t just good for the body or the psyche, it’s downright exhilarating.
- It Boosts Your Immune System. Increasing evidence supports the theory that cold water shocks help stimulate our immune system. Several studies also report higher white blood cell counts in cold water swimmers. Given that white blood cells are our body’s key to fighting infection and disease, cold water-induced immunity is sounding pretty promising!
- It’s Good For Cardiovascular Health. Whenever we take an icy plunge, our hearts are forced to increase blood flow throughout the body, leading to improved circulation. Various studies have shown that repeated exposure to cold water has a “positive impact on cardiovascular risk factors'', decreasing triglycerides and homocysteine which are linked to heart disease. In another study, regular cold baths were shown to decrease blood pressure and lower cholesterol.
- It’s A Stress-Reliever. A lot of things happen to our bodies when we undergo that initial icy shock. On one hand, our bodies are flooded with endorphins that provide pain relief and an immediate sense of elation. On the other hand, as we learn to adapt to the stress of the plunge, our bodies also, inadvertently, become better at adapting to other forms of stress. It turns out that the more we plunge, the better we become at handling everyday anxieties.
- It Increases Your Metabolism. Studies have shown that swimming in cold water increases your basal metabolic rate, meaning you burn more calories for longer.
- It Helps Combat Depression. Cold water bathing is now being used as an alternative therapy for patients with severe depression and anxiety. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. One case study discusses a clinically depressed woman in her twenties who, after years of unsuccessful medication use, was prescribed regular cold water therapy. After just a few sessions, she showed signs of improved mood, and in just one year, she was declared completely drug-free.
- It’s a Great Way to Connect with Strangers. There’s nothing quite like shared adversity to unite a group of people. “When you have the cold sea to face together,” cold water enthusiast Dani explains “you will connect and unite instantly.”
- It Feels Amazing. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to imagine that the benefits of a cold water swim outweigh the pain of its plunge. Science (and overwhelming anecdotal evidence) are here to tell us that they do. Two minutes under icy water can result in hours of euphoria. The surge of happy hormones is both physically and mentally uplifting. “It’s exhilarating.” Jessica Wilson declares. “It makes you feel alive!”
For many, conquering the cold is tantamount to waging victory against our greatest fears. It transforms the frightening into the rewarding, allowing the rest of life to feel easy. We’ve also heard that the euphoria one gets from a cold-water plunge is nothing short of addictive, hinting that this winter pastime is no passing fad. After all, if it doesn’t make superhumans out of all of us, it’ll at least fill us with delirious amounts of glee.
NOTE: Today, cold water swimming is practiced by individuals of all ages and fitness levels. But it’s important to note that cold water swimming comes with some risks and should be approached with caution, especially for the very young and the inexperienced elderly. The most important aspect of safe cold water plunging is to do so slowly and to listen to your body. Allow your body to acclimatize (don’t jump right in), leave the water once you start shivering and make sure to enjoy this activity with other people.
Join SALT + The Local Picnic on their next Cold Water Plunge.