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5 Health Benefits of Cold Water Swimming

If you had to assign one attribute to the kind of people who jump into ice-encrusted lakes for fun, it would probably be: weird. But, if pushed for a second, I bet it would be: healthy.

Overweight, lethargic, bad skin, thin hair. These are not adjectives often associated with those crazy freezing water enthusiasts. Try: athletic, youthful and toned with good complexions and lots of energy. So, what’s their secret? What are the real beneficial health outcomes of regular exposure to cold water and are they available to normal people without masochistic tendencies?

1. Boosts your immune system

For your body, a sudden and drastic change in temperature constitutes an attack – as anyone who’s ever fallen overboard in British waters will concur. And, whilst “attacking” your own body may not sound like a good thing, there is no harm in keeping it on its toes. In fact, quite the opposite.

Scientists from the Czech Republic immersed witting subjects in cold water for one hour, three times a week and monitored their physiology. They found significant increases in white blood cell counts and several other factors relating to the immune system. This was attributed to the cold water being a mild stressor which activates the immune system and gives it some practice.

2. For an all-natural high

Winter swimmers talk a lot about the ‘high’ they get from cold water – a feeling of wellbeing that’s so encompassing that it becomes quite addictive (who doesn’t want to feel truly good, at least once a day?) The cause? Endorphins.

Endorphins are the body’s natural pain killers and, in the case of a cold dip, it uses them to take the sting away from your skin. So, to get high on your own supply, all you need to do is jump in a river.

And if you think that sounds dangerously close to the pleasure/pain barrier then you’re probably right. The two other primary causes for endorphin release are pain and orgasm.

The cold will also stimulate your parasympathetic system, which is responsible for rest and repair, and this can trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are a vital part of keeping us happy and low levels of them are linked with depression. Couple this effect with the endorphin rush as you take the plunge and it should make for a warm glow and a wide smile when you re-emerge.

3. Gets your blood pumping

Being hot brings blood to surface. Being cold sends it to your organs. Both extremes work your heart like a pump. That’s why the whole sit in the sauna, roll in the snow, sit in the sauna thing makes people glow. But why is increased blood flow good for you?

Well, it helps flush your circulation for starters, pushing blood through all your capillaries, veins and arteries. It will exfoliate your skin and flush impurities from it, thus helping your complexion (firm-bodied women of all ages around pool sides say it stops cellulite). Evidence also demonstrates that your body adapts to the cold with repeated exposure and this may improve your circulation, particularly to your extremities – no bad thing in the winter months.

You could get these benefits by switching between the hot and cold taps in your shower (or the sauna, snow, sauna thing) but that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as quick dip in your local pond followed by wrapping up warm afterwards.

Are you a Swimmer?

Then you might like my Swimming Resources page. Tips for your first swimming expedition, reasons to shower cold, a wild swimming map, accounts of swimming the Thames and more. 

4. Improves your sex life

The suggestion of a cold shower might bring forth images of hot-headed young men trying to quell wanton urges but research paints a different picture.

In a study with a similar format to the one described above, participants took daily cold baths and were monitored for changes. In addition to some similar results to their Czech counterparts, these researchers also found increased production of testosterone and oestrogen in men and women respectively.

In addition to enhancing libido in both sexes, these hormones also play an important role in fertility. In fact, one technique recommended for men looking to fatherhood is to bathe their testicles in cold water every day.  Whatever your procreative desires, a dip of a different sort certainly could add an edge to your sex life.

5. Burns calories

We all know that swimming is great exercise but there are some extra benefits from doing it in the North Sea that you just won’t get from a warm wade in the Med.

Swimming in cold water will make your body work twice as hard to keep you warm and burn more calories in the process. For this sort of exercise, fat is your body’s primary source of energy and the increased work rate will increase your metabolism in the long run.

(This article was originally written for the Outdoor Swimming Society)

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Laura and Tim Moss are currently cycling 10,000 miles around the world. They are raising money for JDRF Diabetes Research and proudly supported by Ridgeback.

About The Author

Tim has supported over 100 expeditions across all seven continents. He has climbed new mountains, crossed a desert and is currently cycling around the world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society London and a Guinness World Record. He aims to encourage more people to live adventurously.

Number of Entries : 587

Comments (60)

  • lee hughes

    Cold water is addictive!

    I am lucky to have a power shower with very cold water.. So cold it hurts!

    I find myself sometimes like a crazed drug addict thinking it’s not cold enough!

    Need ice!!

    Reply
  • Tom

    Great stuff. I haven’t made the effort to do any cold water swimming but I really should, as it would complement the cold shower nicely. Managed to stick to the ‘no hot showers until 2011′ target so far – I don’t even think about it any more.

    And it’s good to read a longer article ;)

    Reply
  • Laura Forde

    Having just tried cold water swimming I am interested in doing it again- there seems to be a lot of conflicting evidence however, does the cold really speed up your metabolism as some say you burn equal calories to warmer sports and generally eat more afterwards CAUSING weight increase??

    Should I just pack it in and hit the gym? Also, how long do you advise doing it for in order to get the health benefits you mentioned?

    Also, if my heart was not a problem in my braving the icy waters, can I assume that it is relatively healthy?

    Thanks.

    Reply
  • Tim Moss

    Hi Laura

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not a specialist on the subject, I just compiled some information for the article. Here’s what I’d suggest…

    If your sole aim is to lose weight then a gym may work for you as it’s nice and controlled with a read out telling you how many calories you’ve burned.

    However, aside from the myriad other wonderful things about swimming the great outdoors, I think the enjoyment of it can encourage you to go more frequently and to stay in for longer (rather than groaning at the thought of another gym session and shooting off as soon as you’ve hit your target distance in the pool/ or on the treadmill).

    For length of time, I imagine anything from a one-minute shower upwards would give some benefit. As for your heart, I am afraid I am not in a position to advise.

    Enjoy the water.

    Tim.

    Reply
  • Matt

    I am so glad that I am not the only one who has experienced the addictiveness of the cold water endorphin rush. Years ago in Tasmania, the coldest state in Australia, I took a cold water bath every night for about a month to test a claim I had read that cold water boosts the immune system and prevents colds and flus. I did not look forward to the first few baths but I was surprised by how good I felt after the shock of the first few minutes of freezing water had worn off, and a state of what I can only describe as post-coital well-being settled in. After about two weeks I started to look forward to the bath, and by the end of the month the expectation of feeling good started as soon I ‘hit’ the water. The main outcome of the experiment was that I developed am amazing tolerance to the cold, wearing shorts and T-shirts throughout winter, shocking people who were rugged up in coats and scarves. The other effect was that I did not get sick for two years. I also lost quite a bit of weight. In retrospect I should have at least taken a few every month to keep my immune system boosted but I stopped at some point. Anyway, I was reminded of these effects yesterday when my hot water service went off and I had to have two cold showers in a row. Initially I hated the first shower but then that old endorphin rush happened, and it was like being reacquainted with an old friend. I looked forward to the second shower. Now that it is the weekend and I can relax I am hungering for a nice, long cold bath. I am sure that I must some kind of endorphin junkie!

    Reply
  • Tim Moss

    Super comment Matt, thank you.

    I got into it in a similar way when I had no option but to wash in glacial melt water for a month. It started off as a novel trial of endurance and ended up being the highlight of my day.

    May all your showers be cold, sir!

    Reply
  • Jack Bright

    Hi, a nice article. I take it the research you found from the Czech republic was by Professors Vybiral & Zeman. Between them they have carried out quite a bit of research into the subject. if you haven’t seen it check out http://extremewinterswimming.com/ it has just been revamped and the blog page will be updated regularly. There are some great films on here as well as articles and photos.

    Reply
    • Tim Moss

      Thanks Jack. I’m sure those were the guys I came across.

      I’m missing cold water here in Oman but your website gave me a little taste of it. Added to my RSS Feed.

      Reply
  • Jeff sharp

    I swim in the North Sea at Tynemouth Longsands.It sorts my head out.

    Reply
  • Hossam

    Thanks for article but my question is there any limitations regarding the age because I m 52 and hesitant to go through the experience..

    Reply
    • Tim Moss

      Absolutely not Hossam! Swimming, wild swimming, cold water swimming and everything else involving water is very much open to those in their 50s and well beyond. Go get in the water!

      Reply
  • Karen

    It is addictive. I don;t drink or smoke, but I’m getting hooked on the cold water rush. If you don’t feel like you have enough energy, try cold water swimming. You will feel re-born. I take my hat off to people who have been disciplined to do this on a regular basis over an extended period of time. It also helps with aches and pains.

    Reply
  • Níels

    Swimming in cold water is much adrenalin and very good after
    Age does not matter if you break health and your heart is right.
    The oldest swimmer for us to be eighty years old and do not feel the cold that was 9 points frost last Monday

    Reply
  • Danielle

    Wonderful article! During my time in New York City, I was a member of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club for three swimming seasons (we swim from November to April in the Atlantic Ocean). I will tell you that I never felt so physically strong as when I was a Club member – it’s an incredibly invigorating, empowering experience – both for the body and mind. I’ve since moved away from NYC to warmer climes, and miss the swims very, very much. The camaraderie is part of the joy, too – but that cold saltwater has truly addictive powers. Thanks for the great article, and sharing with the rest of the world that there is more to our activity than sheer insanity! :)

    Reply
  • Michel Fitzgerald

    Great article! I’m an experienced winter swimmer here at Blackrock, Galway. One caveat! Be careful about time spent in cold water as hypothermis can set in very quickly, in a matter of minutes in water at say 8ºC. The real danger for the inexperienced is that the cold sensation abates as the core body temperature reduces and the victim becomes unaware of the danger. The benefits are obtained in the first minute or so an do not require a longer immersion.
    Enjoy!

    Reply
  • Eric Michael

    There is something rejuvenating about jumping into a cold pool. I LOVE it. It makes me more certain than ever that I’ll walk again soon…damn spinal injury has been a real pain for the last 10 years

    Reply
  • Al

    that Czech study on immune system is very small, hasn’t been replicated and hasn’t been widely cited, as far as I can ascertain- generally a sign of lower quality science. I’m not saying cold water can’t improve the immune system, but I think the benefits are rather over hyped in this respect.

    Reply
  • Athena

    Thanks for this article! To heal from a running injury, I decided to jump in the cold pool (outside) with my aqua jogger and give my legs a break from the pounding. It is February and the water is freezing! I am nuts, I thought! Yet, decided to push along and give it a try, and see if it gets more comfortable. 25 minutes later, I had this amazing “high,” with an incredible feeling of alertness and well-being. Never felt this alive. This wakes up every cell in your body. Wow!

    Yes, it’s addictive. I am now running in the cold water, 3 times a week, altering with land running. The neighbors (shared pool) think I am absolutely crazy. :-)

    Thanks to all for contributing your experiences. Glad I am not alone!

    Reply
  • annaz

    @Matt, I had similar cold-shock therapy slowly getting me addicted, but I want to ask you, when you say ‘cold bath’, you mean immersion to a tub filled with cold water or swimming in a lake/sea for more than 1 min? So far I have been swimming up to 10 mins but its getting difficult to swim often so I wonder if I can also use cold showers or cold bathtub immersion to get similar effects, yet I know I will miss the thril of swimming quickly in a clean lake with beautiful nature arround but if the endorphin effect is same, I am keen do keep up this way too…

    Reply
  • Tim Moss

    Hi Anna, cold showers and baths can certainly have similar effects. I wrote a short piece about showering cold: http://thenextchallenge.org/2011/11/reasons-shower-cold/

    Reply
  • L. Sue Durkin-Eggerton

    You need to interview Jill Peck Vona, author of Addicted: Cold Water Submersion. It is being released tomorrow (Saturday, March 10th, 2012). Weaving Dreams Publishing is the publisher. She tells how she couldn’t live, eat, etc. without submersing herself in ice water. How she had a kiddy pool in the bedroom and filled it with ice water. Check her out.

    Reply
  • Alecca

    I think you should be very careful. Cold swimming may be energy burning but it contains a lot of hazards. Never jump in a river because the risk of drowing in extremly high. You must have a great condition before before attempting to do anything of these. Your health condition must be good since cold shock is extremly taxing on the body.

    I wish you give a brief warning about doing this and what risks you’re taking. I don’t doubt in your word, but for people not familiar with cold swimming this could be a risky thing.

    Reply
  • Tim Moss

    Thanks Alecca. I’d agree that there are some risks but I would disagree with “never jump in a river because the risk of drowning is extremely high” – fast flowing, with steep sides and of unknown depth, maybe, but if you’re familiar with the river and you judge it to be safe then there’s nothing wrong with jumping in.

    Similarly, I don’t think you need to be in ‘great condition’ at all to swim outside. Diving head first into a hole in frozen river, miles from civilisation and on your own might be foolish but, for example, wading in the Serpentine in central London which is only chest deep doesn’t require particularly high any particular health attributes.

    Some sensible precautions are necessary but I feel the health and safety pendulum has swung much too far in the direction of warnings when, really, paddling in a stream and a quick dip along the shores of a lake are really not high risk activities.

    Reply
  • jeff sharp

    I swim in the sea at Tynemouth Longsands with an ex pro boxer friend Paul Charters.We are addicts too.Was great to read your 5 health benefis page,Is there any negative issues though? We stay in 15/20 mins,Paul is 47 and has arthritis.I am 51.

    Reply
  • jeff sharp

    Cheers Tim.

    Reply
  • Ruth

    Loved your article.

    I swim a kilometre everyday in the ocean baths in Newcastle NSW. It’s currently 14C and will reach 22C at then of summer.

    This is my 17th year of this kind of swimming and I must concur that my health is very good – with no winter colds etc, so there must be immune benefits.

    The endorphin factor in winter is excellent and quite a cure for most psychological dips I encounter.

    As far as ill effects are concerned, swimmers ear is a risk – mitigated by the use of silicone ear plugs. Also, there are heart risks for some swimmers as the prolonged cold water exposure (over years) can thicken the blood and increase the chance of heart attack.

    Despite any potential risks such as ears and heart, I fully intend to swim in the ocean all year round until the very end!

    Reply
  • marco

    Hello, thanks for your article, I now know a little bit more as to why I love cold swimming so much.

    I have again started swimming in cold water this year, I never really looked into it but cold water swimming is something I have always done since a child when I used to go spear hunting in the winter.. it was the Mediterranean sea so maybe it never got older than about 9C but still, quite cold.

    Now I am 50 and will swim about 40 minutes in the Adriatic sea near Venice, I started this April at about 11C then did the whole summer and now it is starting to get cooler again, maybe I can go all year round when it should get to about 8C in February but we will see, my main worry is that someone might steal my clothes while I am in the water, I don’t think I’d make it home then as I travel on a bicycle :)

    Enjoy your cold water swimming, don’t jump in immediately, give your body a chance to get used to it in a gradual way and then it won’t be a shock.. I take about 10 minutes till I finally submerge my head.. a swimming cap helps a little.

    marco

    Reply
  • Kelley

    Very encouraging article… I will keep a close eye on the obvious addictive nature of this sport. It’s great to read all the positive response to your article, I now know I’m not alone. Swimming in upstate NY in October with a temperature of 11C, it’s very impossible to have a swim buddy, At least I know there are others out there craving it much like I do.

    Reply
  • jim elliot

    When in a cold Vancouver Canada sea in January I am often mistaken for a harbour seal. Tourists on the seawall get out their cameras and are very disappointed when I pop up and yell “I’m only human”. I meet many naked buddhist swimmers who oddly seem much more resistent to the cold than I. They are often on vows of silence when I am high on endorphyns so I got no one to talk to. I ain’t had a cold that’s lasted for years. My writing has become more concise. I swear parts of the brain are opened up thru coldwater swimmin that would otherwise remain dormant. I never wear a bathing cap and go underwater at least once to massage the seawater into my hungry follicles.

    Reply
  • Sarah

    I have always been a fan of Nordic countries. What always pops up in their activities, is ice swimming. I wanted to do it, but like always wanted to research first. I read this article, and then made a cold bath loaded with ice in the tub. The first feeling for about 3 seconds, was stinging. After that, I started counting backwards from 20, in sets. I noticed that I stayed in surprisingly longer than I would have thought. I loved it!!!. I grew up in Hawaii, where the waters are warm….so its nice to know that I lasted several min. I already want to go back in, after only 10 min. of being out to write this.

    Reply
  • valeria

    Article qui décrit exactement toutes les bénéfices de la natation en eau froide. Je nage toute l’année en bikini dans la manche/mer du nord et lacs et rivières au moins deux fois par semaine.
    Aujourd’hui dans une température extérieure extrêmement douce et une eau à 14/15° j’ai nagé 2×45 minutes.
    Avec l’habitude et sachant comme je vais me sentir sur mon petit nuage après je ne me pose plus de question et y rentre y compris en plongeant. J’adore quand la mer est déchainée et que je peux plonger dans les vagues.

    Reply
  • Moe El Gharbawy

    i use to have a cold pool at the health club (GYM) as it is electrically cooling as here at Saudi Arabia the weather is hot so they cooling it to use after sauna for fat burning i do not know to what extent it should be cold which Celsius or Fahrenheit to fit the purpose

    if any advice or information would be highly appreciated

    Reply
  • Kasnar

    When I first moved to Florida and would regularly go to the beach, I wondered why I often felt so amorous after sunning and swimming. Then I read in a now discontinued magazine called Longevity (this was years ago) how cold water dips increased testosterone and oxygen flow through the body. In this issue there was a pic of the late Katherine Hepburn stepping into the ocean off the Hamptons when snow was on the ground. Apparently, she had been a cold water dipper for years. Now there’s no comparison between the Hamptons during the winter and Miami Beach. Nonetheless, the ocean in South Florida often gets cold enough during the winter that it often keeps Floridians, at least, out of the water. (The surf in South Florida can actually get unbelievably hot during the summer too.) I always preferred the surf to be cold rather than hot. It’s far more refreshing. So I was often among the few Floridians who would venture into the ocean during the winter.
    I had the good fortune of spending one Christmas in Rio De Janeiro. Now Christmas time in the southern hemisphere is like the north’s summer. Oddly, while the Rio sun was intense, the ocean was cold. The surf is deeper there than in Florida. Just recently I learned of the connection between sunbathing and testosterone and I felt a smile coming on. Cool oceans plus radiant sunshine – not to mention eye candy from shore to shore. What a combination!! I’ll just say ” Blame it on Rio”!!!….;-)

    Reply

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