The positive health effects of cold water swimming
I am at a glorious yoga retreat in the Sabine Hills in Italy, but today the weather is cold and threatening rain. Yesterday I spent my free time walking, lazing around in the sun reading and walking to the local village to stock up on dark chocolate for the group. Today, with the glum weather I would have to find other ways to occupy my time.
Then it occurred to me that I could go swimming in the outdoor pool. Gathered at breakfast, the rest of the retreat group questioned my sensibilities – wouldn’t swimming make more sense on a nice day? However, I had previously seen on television that there are a plethora of benefits to swimming in cold water. In particular, my good friend the television had taught me that it was a good cure for depression.
No one quite believed I was going to do it, but off I toddled in my swimsuit and goggles. To call what I did swimming is probably a bit of a stretch. It took me about ten minutes to fully get into the pool as I would let each part of my body acclimatise before daring to get another part of my body wet. However, once I had been in the pool for a few minutes, the raging shock of my body wore off and it became more comfortable. The pool here is tiny – about three or four strokes long – and I only did about ten lengths in total, stopping in between each one to catch my breath from the coldness. After that I decided to dash back to my room and jump into a warm shower.
Now that I have put myself through it, I have decided to do a little research into these supposed benefits of cold water swimming.
According to Dr. Peter Bongiorno when we come into contact with cold water, the vessels near the surface tighten up and blood moves away from the surface of our body and towards the core. Our bodies do this to conserve heat, but it also has the effect of sending lots of fresh blood, along with it nutrients and oxygen, to our brain and vital organs.
NA Shevchuck states in the abstract of his 2013 study that a cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect. Research from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine also appears to show that cold water exposure results in a significant mood improvement in depressed patients. According to Dr. Alexa Fleckenstein, author of Health 2-0: Tap into the Healing Powers of Water to Fight Disease, Feel Younger, and Look Your Best, 30 seconds of cold water exposure a day is enough to have a significant effect on your overall wellbeing.
Mental health always come first for me, but there are other benefits of cold water as well. According to a Czech study, being immersed in cold water three times a week for one hour can boost the immune system in multiple way, including increasing white blood cell count.
Additionally, swimming in cold water burns more calories, as your body has to work harder to keep you warm. Other supposed benefits include increased sex drive and detoxification if you take a hot shower or go and sit in the sauna afterwards.
Since first writing this I have had one opporutnity to get into the cold sea and 5 days of opportunity to get into a cold pool, none of which I took up. I think a 30 second cold shower is perhaps more bareable than a whole swim.