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The benefits of cold water swimming

Swimming in the cold British water? We know what you're thinking but there are plenty of health benefits associated with a dip in icy waters.

With our unpredictable British weather, diving into a lake in the great outdoors may not be what immediately springs to mind when planning a relaxing day out. So, why is cold-water swimming gaining so much in popularity? A recent report published by Outdoor Swimmer revealed that the number of people participating in outdoor swimming in the UK has risen between 1.5 and 3 times since 2019 [1].

Cold-water swimming usually takes place outdoors and could include organised events at designated swimming sites, along with wild swimming which can take place in any permitted open water site in the UK, such as lakes, rivers and even the open ocean.

Many say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! And for those who have tried it, they now say they now can’t imagine life without cold-water swimming - so, are we missing something?

The truth is that cold-water swimming provides you with a vast host of benefits. Still not convinced? Read on to find out more.

1. Boosts your mood.

The most frequently reported benefit of cold-water swimming is the boost it can give to your mood [3].

Experts have found that regular cold-water exposure could improve mental health problems such as anxiety and depression – the reasons behind this aren’t yet entirely clear, but research is ongoing to understand the effects of cold water on our minds.

One theory is that it may reduce our reaction to stress, in other words making our mind and body more resilient to external stressors, or that cold water is anti-inflammatory, leading to improvements to mental and physical health [1].

Whatever the reasons for it – it doesn’t matter so much because it makes us feel amazing. If nothing else, we promise you one thing, you can’t beat the euphoric feeling of getting out of the water and back into warm clothes! Don’t believe us? Well, you may just have to try it for yourself.

2. Connects you to nature.

Many wild swimmers say that whilst you are in the water surrounded by water and wildlife it gives you a sense of intense mindfulness which is difficult to achieve in any other activity. This is because when swimming all you can think about is the ‘here and now’ – your movement in the water, your physical surroundings and whether your body is warm enough (or whether it is time to get out!).

What’s more, swimming in many undisturbed stretches of water gives you the opportunity to adventure into unexplored areas of nature which you may not be able to access on pre-determined footpaths. You will gain a different perspective (literally) on the UK’s landscape offering the chance to catch a glimpse of some rarities of nature.

3. It’s fun (and free!)

Outdoor swimming offers the chance to meet others with the same (slightly crazy) interests as you and in many cases (such as wild swimming) you can participate entirely for free. With an endless number of locations across the UK, there is always somewhere new to explore.

Or why not join a local group and buddy up with others? This is a great way to get to know people and learn techniques from those who are more experienced. Your swimming group can become a new weekly social event which is a great and enjoyable way to blow off steam and have fun after a busy week at work.

4. Potential benefits to metabolism.

Some scientists have found benefits to metabolism from cold water exposure, for example through the activation of brown adipose tissue (BAT) in our bodies. BAT is considered a ‘healthier’ type of fat in our bodies, which can help to keep us warm by turning glucose and fatty acids in our blood into heat [2]. In theory, this may support the body to burn more calories, but more research is needed on this exciting topic.

One (proven) way to support your metabolism is through muscle strengthening and exercise, such as swimming. So, whether you choose to swim in the warm or cold, it can only be beneficial for your metabolism!

5. May reduce pain

Much anecdotal evidence suggests that cold water exposure is beneficial for those living with chronic pain caused by conditions such as arthritis [3]. Arthritis is a long-term, inflammatory condition that causes pain, swelling and stiffness on the joints.

This effect may be due to the reduction of inflammatory markers in the body [8] or may simply be due to a ‘numbing effect’ caused by the cold on our bodies (similar to applying an ice-pack) [10].

More robust research is needed, so experts cannot yet recommend cold water therapy to treat health conditions, but it is reassuring to know that researchers are working hard to uncover the real benefits on our bodies.

6. It’s great exercise!

Swimming a great all-around type of exercise because it can strengthen your cardiovascular fitness along with strengthening your muscles.

Regular swimming can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke [7].

What’s more, swimming in water can support the bodies of people with injuries or certain disabilities [9]. Meaning that everybody can get involved.

7. Enhanced recovery.

Exercise can lead to pain and sore muscles, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Many elite athletes use cold therapy (also known as cryotherapy) to support muscle recovery and reduce pain after a bout of extreme exercise [10], [11].

Some even take ice baths but the jury is out as to whether this is better than heat therapy. Experts highlight that this treatment may not be appropriate for all types of exercise [11] and more research is needed to unravel whether heat therapy may be just as beneficial [10].

If you’re interested to find out more, head to wildswimming.co.uk or outdoorswimmingsociety.com.

One advocate of cold-water swimming that has earned somewhat a celebrity status over the past few years is Wim Hof, also known as ‘The Ice man’. Wim considers himself an extreme athlete and has achieved many feats in the cold including running a half marathon above the Artic Circle barefoot and staining in a container covered with ice for almost 2 hours [4]. The Wim Hof method involves cold therapy along with controlled breathing and psychological methods. Read more about this here.

Before beginners jump in at the deep end (excuse the pun), it is important to get savvy on the safety of cold water swimming. We’ve put a few pointers below:

  • Beware of boat traffic.
  • Take it slow.
  • Check the currents and tides.
  • Make sure you’re a confident swimmer.
  • Watch the weather forecast.
  • Monitor the temperature.
  • If you have heart disease, seek medical advice first.
  • Buddy up.
  • Acclimatise yourself.
  • Attend organised events.

Have we convinced you to jump in head first?

Before you get started with your new hobby, why not measure your fitness starting point with one of our Sports Performance Blood Tests? Our Fitness Blood Test is perfect for is establishing your baseline level of health so that you can track improvements as you progress. It includes tests for liver function and cholesterol as well as tests for energy, muscle, inflammation and vitamins.

References

1. https://www.nationalworld.com/health/open-water-swimming-why-wild-swimming-has-surged-in-popularity-during-lockdown-the-surprising-health-benefits-of-a-cold-dip-3184128

2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0026049516300026

3. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/dec/23/the-big-chill-the-health-benefits-of-swimming-in-ice-water

4. https://www.wimhofmethod.com/iceman-wim-hof

5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306987712000333

6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306456599000595

7. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/swimming-for-fitness/

8. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0225749

9. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/get-active-with-a-disability/

10. Wang, Y., Li, S., Zhang, Y., Chen, Y., Yan, F., Han, L. and Ma, Y., 2021. Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials. Physical Therapy in Sport.

11. White, G.E. and Wells, G.D., 2013. Cold-water immersion and other forms of cryotherapy: physiological changes potentially affecting recovery from high-intensity exercise. Extreme physiology & medicine, 2(1), pp.1-11.