Does cold water swimming have health benefits?

cold water swimming
Source: Unknown (via Pixy)
Recent studies on cold water swimming have found that the rush of cold water triggers a fight-or-flight response within the body.

By Harriet Lowbridge | Contributor

The topic of cold-water swimming has sparked debates for centuries, with hundreds claiming that it can have various different health and wellbeing benefits. This subject has been recently reignited on social media by the world-record holder Cath Pendelton from Merthyr Tydfil. Pendelton was the first person to ever swim a full mile in the Antarctic circle in 2020 and is a huge advocate for its benefits. For her, the process is similar to ‘pressing control-alt-delete on a computer’, giving her whole body a refresh.

Cold-water swimming became immensely popular throughout the UK in the Victorian era. It was supported by many of the contemporary influential figures, such as Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin. Swimmers are found all over the globe and are especially common in Nordic and Eastern European countries where the practice is tied to religious events.

The key factor of cold-water swimming is the “cold shock” you experience when submerged in water below 15°C. Recent studies have found that the rush of cold water triggers a fight-or-flight response within the body, causing chemicals such as noradrenaline to quintuple and dopamine to double. Tensing the body for action as well as providing a reward stimulus within the brain. This rush of the cold shock has been likened to that of a drug rush found with amphetamines.

This cold shock is thought to promote one’s health by alleviating the symptoms of stress, depression, and dementia. As well as help build tolerance to stress in other areas of one’s life through a process called hormesis, otherwise known as “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger”. While it is also thought to help manage auto-immune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis in young people, and reduce inflammation throughout the body. It has even enabled some to completely stop using their anxiety and depression medication due to the immediate improvement in mood she found after swimming.

Despite the benefits there are numerous risk factors to consider before someone decides to throw themself into the deep end of cold-water swimming. There are still some medical doubts about the practice, and it is recommended to consult your doctor about before scrapping all of your medication and trying it. Aside from the obvious water-safety issues involved with any form of swimming, the cold shock also causes the body to make an involuntary gasp for air. This is especially dangerous when someone is submerged underwater as they cannot control whether or not they take water into their lungs and can cause them to drown.

Cold water can also pose a risk of hypothermia and triggering heart attacks, even in young and physically fit people, as cold temperatures slow down the heart rate and body functions. It is, therefore, relieving to know that most of the benefits are attributed to the cold shock and quick changes in body temperature. One does not have to completely cool your core temperature or spend hours submerged in freezing water to enjoy its benefits.

Whether you are interested in the numerous mental and physical health benefits, cold-water swimming can be appreciated for its aesthetic and for simply providing an opportunity to focus on and connect with one’s body in nature.

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