Watch | Is cold water swimming good for you?

by Gemma Kerr

Video and header image credit by Abdull Nurdin-Hussein


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It’s the crack of dawn and the sun is still low in the sky over the lake.  The sounds of chatter and nervous giggles mix with the sounds of birdsong around you.  You step up to the water and tentatively dip in a toe.  It’s icy cold.  You’re about to take the plunge… but is cold water swimming such a good idea?  What happens to your body in cold water?  And what happens to your mind?  Is cold-water swimming good for you?  What are the benefits of exposure to cold water? 

How does cold water swimming make you feel?

Can cold water swimming feel exhilarating? 

Many cold water swimmers report feeling exhilarated after a swim – getting a burst of energy and feeling very happy.  Research suggests this may be linked to an increased release of endorphins and other hormones in the brain. The body releases these chemicals in response to the shock of cold water.  Endorphins can act as natural pain-relief and also improve your mood and general feeling of wellbeing. 


Can cold water swimming feel relaxing? 

For some people, swimming in cold water can be a form of meditation – especially when it is combined with breathing exercises.  When you first dip into very cold water, your body experiences ‘cold water shock’.  This usually makes you gasp in air, and your blood pressure increases.  This is your body’s stress response, a part of your fight-or-flight instinct designed to keep you alive.  With careful training, you can teach your body to relax under stress.  Repeated cold water exposure reduces the intensity of this stress response.  This means that, in the long run, your body gets better at dealing with stressful situations.  So, when your body gets used to it, the cold water can feel quite relaxing! 


Can cold water swimming make you feel connected? 

Cold water swimmers also report a stronger connection with nature.  Most cold-water swimming events take place in an outdoor venue – like a lake or river.  This means that swimmers aren’t just immersed in cold water – but nature too!  Regular trips outdoors can help us take more notice of the world around us, from feeling rocks at the bottom of a river to spotting local wildlife.  For some people, this greater connection with nature can also feel like a type of meditation.   

One benefit that lots of people agree on is the connections built between people.  Thriving communities can spring up around a huge range of hobbies, and cold water swimming is no exception.  For many cold water swimmers, the social part of the activity is a major reason for going.  Perhaps waking up extra early to get into cold water is an unusual but quick way to bond!  Building connections with other people can have a positive effect on our mental health.  Social connections can help us to find a feeling of belonging and encourage a sense of purpose. 


How can I try cold water swimming safely?

While there are lots of potential benefits to cold-water swimming, as with all exercise it is important to do it safely. Before you go for a dip, make sure you’ve thought about the risks.  Exposure to cold water should not be underestimated.  It can make your body tired quickly which makes swimming harder and can even lead to hypothermia.

If you do decide to take the plunge:

  • make sure you’ve found somewhere safe to swim
  • go with a group of people, run by an expert - never swim alone
  • take things slowly, gradually increasing your exposure to cold water
  • consider any existing health issues - it won't be the right hobby for everyone
  • keep any children in very shallow water – cold water can affect children more quickly than adults

These precautions will help to keep you safe, allowing you to relax into the experience and enjoy the cold!

Cold water swimming as an activity is still being researched.  There are lots of questions still to explore about what cold water exposure does for our minds and bodies.  How do you feel if you gor for a walk in the cold?  Does being around wildlife relax you?  What communities are you part of that make you feel connected?  Let us know in the comments here: What are the benefits of cold water swimming? | We The Curious - YouTube

Enjoyed reading about the benefits of an icy dip?  Get in touch on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let us know what health and wellbeing topics make you curious!


Thanks to: Emergent Purpose

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