By Imogene Broberg-Hull

My mind's tellin' me no, but my body, my body's tellin' me yes...Wait, no - the other way around! Jumping in freezing cold water seems like just about the least intuitive thing ever, but what if cold water swimming is exactly what you need? 

Submerging your body in a freezing cold ocean or lake has become somewhat of a trend lately. Of course, Scandanavians would argue it has always been popular, but we North Americans are admittedly meek when it comes to taking the plunge. Sadie, our Program Manager, and I have both gone for a few swims this winter and I am happy to report that we are better for it. 

Here’s why: 

Mood Booster

Ah, the post-swim high. It’s an undeniably excellent feeling to emerge from cold water, and it’s not just that you’re happy to be out of the freezing cold water, it’s the endorphins! Swimming in cold water puts stress on your nervous system, spiking your endorphins, which in turn increases your levels of happy-making dopamine and serotonin. In short, going for a swim is the closest thing you could get to a mood reset button. 

Alright, this guy is totally bragging. But he does look pretty happy 😊 Image: Tatasov_vl, Getty Images

Immunity

Cold water swimmers claim to experience fewer and weaker infections as a result of regular immersion. The release of short-term stress hormones is proven to ready the immune system against injury and infection. Basically, it hardens you up. I can think of no better time than a global pandemic to build up a more robust immune system. 

This fella hasn't had a cold since the '90s. Image: Rozbyshaka, Getty Images

Stress Relief

I’m the first to admit that I turn into a nail-biting, foot tapping, to-do listing ball of anxiety when I’ve got too much on my plate. Some days it just feels impossible to take a moment to de-stress. But cold dips have made a noticeable difference for me. Much like our immune response to cold water immersion, our body’s resilience against stress is strengthened with regular swims. Immersion puts your body into fight or flight mode. As you repeat cold water swims, your stress response will diminish with your body’s acclimatization to colder temperatures. Repeated exposure better equips you to deal with life’s many challenges that culminate in chronic stress. Plus, no one has time to think about their to-do list when their body is in shock. Take that, yoga. 

I don't recommend testing the water before your dip. Trust me, it's better that way. Image: Amadea, Getty Images 

Anti-Inflammatory

It’s all connected. So it comes as no surprise that there is a growing body of research that links inflammation with physical and mental health. Not only does cold water swimming help you manage stress and anxiety, but direct and sustained contact with cold water (a couple minutes) will divert blood away from your extremities to protect your vital organs. This low blood flow decreases inflammation and allows muscles to recover quicker than they would at regular temperatures.

Post-run swim in North Van, anyone? Image: Edb3_16, Getty Images 

Morale

Lastly, my favorite thing about cold water swimming is how it affects the rest of my day. Not only am I naturally high on the shock of it all, but submerging myself in cold water even just for a few seconds has the ability to turn my whole day around. Anxious? Sad? Unproductive? Winter/COVID-19 Blues? Turn the page, go for a dip. Everything else seems a lot more manageable after crossing something a little scary off the list. 

A quick google search can reveal that the verdict is in: cold water swimming is good for you. It makes you happier, less stressed, leads to deeper sleep, better skin, higher libido, the list goes on. The slew of health benefits, both mental and physical, associated with cold water submersion is overwhelmingly convincing. So if you haven’t gone for a dip yet this winter, I double dog dare you to give it a try. You won’t regret it. 

A photo I took years ago, during my first group winter swim. What fun! Image: Imogene Broberg-Hull 

If you’re headed out for a dip in the cold, please remember:

  • Don’t go alone. Especially if you are a beginner. 
  • Have an exit strategy. Bring warm clothes, a towel, extra warm socks and a toque if you’re far from home or a warm vehicle. 
  • Catch your breath: Practice breathwork if you’re planning on staying in the water longer than a few seconds. This will reduce a panic response and allow your body to get used to the water.
  • Come prepared. Wear a swim cap, gloves, goggles, a wetsuit, or any other gear that will help insulate you and acclimatize to cold water.
  • Don’t push yourself. The fact that you are getting in the water is amazing enough. Do not push your physical boundaries. Stay in as long as it feels comfortable to do so. Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can lead to hypothermia, muscle seizure, and drowning.
  • Assess your ability. Build confidence in your ability to swim before attempting any winter dips. The water will be shocking. 
  • Only swim where it is safe. Simply put, don’t put yourself in danger by swimming in open water as a beginner, in high traffic areas, or in places where it is difficult to exit the water.

Sources:

  1. https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/swim-positive#
  2. https://www.aspire.org.uk/blog/benefits-of-cold-water
  3. https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/6-tips-for-cold-water-swimming
  4. https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/EP086283
  5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/what-works-and-why/201901/how-cold-water-swimming-improves-stress-management 
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