Most people avoid cold showers like the plague, so the thought of cold water swimming might seem like a baffling idea. But did you know there are several physical and mental health benefits of cold water swimming?
In Siberia, cold water swimming is considered part of the lifestyle - and not just for older Speedo-clad men! Ice swimming is an increasingly popular sport amongst younger generations. Dubbed the Russian Walruses or 'Morzhi' (Russian for walruses), these hardy swimmers meet every week to plunge into frozen rivers and lakes throughout the winter. They swear by it, not only for warding off colds and flu but also for reducing cellulite and enjoying feelings of euphoria.
But it's not just Russians in their 20s and 30s taking an ice-cold plunge; it's also popular amongst schools and the Russian Orthodox Church.
In Russian, cold water immersion is seen as a way to 'toughen people up.' Controversially, some Siberian schools practice ice-cold water dousing as part of the curriculum. Why? According to the teachers, it keeps children healthy, stops infections and reduces the number of days they take off school. Not only that, but they claim children who have ice showers are 'more sensible, balanced and optimistic.'
According to Orthodox believers, ice-cold water has religious benefits too. Millions of believers in Russia take part in ice baptisms, particularly during the religious holiday of Epiphany on 19th January. Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday by cutting a cross-shaped hole into ice and plunging into it. They believe the water on Epiphany is holy and use it to wash away their sins.
Cold water therapy is not a new thing - it's been around for a couple of millennia. But it's a trend that's on the rise. Supporters claim cold water swimming offers a wide range of health benefits, from improving circulation to increasing energy levels and reducing inflammation.
These benefits are still hotly disputed, with many scientists suggesting it's yet another woo-woo wellness fad. However, there are some cold water benefits backed up by studies, including:
Cold water therapy, including ice bath soaks, is a popular post-workout practice amongst athletes. Several studies have indicated that soaking in cold water for short periods following exercise can help to prevent muscle soreness.
One study from 2011 found that cyclists partaking in intense training sessions experienced less muscle soreness after immersing themselves in cold water for ten minutes.
A separate study conducted in 2016 showed similar results. The athletes who immersed themselves in a cold water pool (between 12°C to 15°C) experienced less muscle soreness than those who didn't soak in cold water after exercising. Medical experts state that cold water may help to alleviate pain by causing blood vessels to constrict. By reducing blood flow, you simultaneously reduce swelling and inflammation. Hence why people often apply ice packs to injuries.
As well as having physical benefits, cold water may also help to boost mental health. Several studies have found that cold water swimming helps alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression in some participants.
One case study centred on a woman who had experienced anxiety and depression since the age of 17. At 24 years old, she took up weekly open water swimming.
Over time, she reported significant reductions in her anxiety and depression, so much so that she was able to stop taking her medication to treat them. Regular cold water swimming helped to keep her feelings of depression at bay.
We've already noted that Siberian open water swimmers and schools champion cold water for its ability to ward off colds and flu but is there any science behind it? The answer is some!
A Dutch study tested whether people could influence their immune response by practising meditation, deep breathing and cold water immersion techniques. When study participants were exposed to a bacterial infection, the group that had used the techniques had fewer symptoms overall. It was also found their bodies produced more anti-inflammatory chemicals in response to the infection.
While researchers noted the most benefits from the breathing exercises, they believed the cold water immersion helped the immune system build up stress resistance.
Some studies have shown that cold water swimming and cold-water immersion can help to speed up your metabolic rate. The faster your metabolic rate, the quicker you burn calories.
Are you interested in exploring the benefits of cold water swimming or ice baths for yourself? It's important to remember that ice swimming can be extremely dangerous because we lose body heat 25 times faster in water than in air. Seek medical advice first, and if it is safe to try cold water swimming or ice bath immersions, keep it brief.
Cold water immersion may offer several health benefits, but it can also drastically affect your blood pressure, heart rate and circulation. It can even cause severe cardiac stress and lead to death. With this in mind, it's essential to discuss the risks of cold water swimming with your doctor and make sure you're in a fit condition before you try it.
Your state of awareness and emotions can be affected by severely cold water temperatures. If you're going cold water swimming or taking an ice bath, make sure someone is on hand to check in with you and keep you safe, especially in open water. We'd recommend joining cold water or open water swimming groups in your local area. It's not just a Siberian sport; there are wild water swimming groups all over the world!
Don't forget that your body temperature can continue to drop even after you've exited the water, increasing your risk of developing hypothermia.
According to the Outdoor Swimming Society, it's essential to warm up safely and gradually after a cold water swim. They advise:
We’re interested to hear from anyone experienced in cold water swimming. Are the health benefits true? Comment below and let us know what you think.
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