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The rise of cold water swimming - and why it's more than just exercise
October 30th 2020 / 0 comment
Hundreds of people, including Fearne Cotton, are turning to wild swimming as a way to boost mood and immunity. Could cold water be our unlikely ally in the time of Covid?
A dip in a cold body of water doesn’t sound like the most appealing thing on this rainy October afternoon, but would you be tempted to make like Fearne Cotton and dip a toe into the waters if you knew it could help remedy depression, clear brain fog, energise your day and boost your immune system. Suddenly an icy swim doesn't sound so bad.
Wild swimming in the great outdoors has seen a steady rise in popularity in lockdown because lakes, rivers and the sea were not affected. In June, the UK Outdoor Swimming Society was forced to take down its map of swimming hotspots as local communities were being overwhelmed by demand. In 2006 the Society had 300 members; today it has 100,000. The National Open Water Coaching Association (Nowca), says the number of swimmers in its 30 UK venues rose by 60 per cent over the summer.
Such is the popularity of cold water swimming that Lake District spa Armathwaite Hall has just launched a Wild Swimming and Waterfalls experience where guests are led by a wild swimming coach through various lakes and waterfalls surrounding the spa as part of their trip. Just last week Fearne Cotton posted about her sea swim, lauding it for “clarity, calm vibes and pure exhilaration”, while Cambridge University released a study earlier this month that said cold water swimming could help to delay neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia.
While lidos and outdoor pools are once again set to shut from Thursday according to the latest government guidelines for indoor and outdoor leisure venues the fact that they were among the first to open after spring lockdown lends hope for those eager to get back in the water.
How cold water swimming makes us more stress-resilient
“Cold water swimming affects our pain receptors and temperature receptors inducing a cold shock response,” explains neuroscientist Tara Swart. “To balance this, we release endorphins and natural pain killers which then have a beneficial effect on our mood, resilience, immunity and even longevity."
Immersing yourself in cold water puts the body into the stress state - fight or flight mode. Each time we repeat this experience, the stress response is diminished and having more control over your stress response means being able to better cope with daily stresses. Think of it as 'stress inoculation,' says Dr Swart. Reduced stress is also known to lessen inflammation in the body which strengthens the immune system.
“From the neuroscience point of view, it’s important that this is balanced by properly warming up afterwards so you train your brain to realise that you can recover from these inoculations of stress to build up mental resilience over time,” Tara Swart cautions. “This could improve our threshold for anxiety and even depression. In many Nordic countries, they use the sauna after ice bathing for this purpose.”
How cold water strengthens the immune system
A study from Finland showed that cold showering for 15, 30 or 60 seconds reduces the number of winter colds and flu or reduces the number of days that illness lasts for, says Tara Swart. “This implies that it bolsters immunity which, through neuro-psycho-endocrinology [the link between the nerves, mind and hormones] would have an impact on mood, brain health and state of mind, because of the regulation of hormones in the endocrine system."
The mental health benefits of cold water swimming
The mental health benefits are not to be sniffed at either. In September 2018 the British Medical Journal published a report about the theories around cold water adaptation as a treatment for depression. It followed a 24-year-old woman with symptoms of depression and anxiety who had been treated for the condition since she was 17. Her medication was replaced with a programme of weekly cold water swimming and this led to an immediate improvement in mood following each swim and a sustained and gradual reduction in symptoms of depression and eventually led to her becoming medication free. “Many outdoor water swimmers use the water to help them through hard times in life,” says journalist and podcaster Lorraine Candy, 52 who's been an avid outdoor swimmer for five years. “I meet many people who’ve had depression and used the water to help them get over it.”
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Cold water swimming in menopause and perimenopause
As well as helping symptoms of depression and anxiety, cold water swimming is a great boost in the perimenopause, as Lorraine found. “When I began to go through the perimenopause I found being in nature, being outside and benefitting from the cold water immersion really helped my frame of mind and proved to be a fantastic mental tool to clear my mind.”
When Rebekah Brown, 47, founder of perimenopause supplement MPowder began feeling low and joyless in her 40s, cold water swimming helped her recover her energy and enthusiasm for life. "I felt an instinctive pull to swim outside and noticed a lot of my peers in midlife were heading to the open water too. It has a real impact on brain fog, bone and joint ache and energy levels,” she says. Rebekah became a devotee when I started following the research of Wim Hof (known as the Ice Man) a modern pioneer of cold as a treatment for many ailments including depression to boosting the immune system. He was also the man who converted Fearne Cotton to cold water swimming after he appeared on her Happy Place podcast.
Rebekah attended a day-long Wim Hof cold water therapy course with one of his trainers at the start of this year and says it was "transformational – and excruciating. You learn the science behind cold water immersion, before a couple of hours of breathwork to prepare for the immersion and then you get in the cold-water tub for two minutes.” This week, she is hosting an introduction to Cold Water Swimming workshop over Zoom with her trainer which costs £5 to join, and she tells us, may involve an ice bucket.
Cold water swimming for confidence
Lorraine also credits cold water swimming in helping her both be more confident and braver. “Being in the water and overcoming the fear of it sometimes has taught me I can be confident in other situations, it is good to know that I have the capacity to do adventurous things. You take that feeling with you during the day. I find the repetitive action of a front crawl swim meditative and extremely calming, " she says.
How to get into cold water swimming
If the prospect of getting into cold water seems daunting, or you don't have a lido or coastline nearby, begin with a few cold showers to try to acclimatise, advises Lorraine. It's a method Tara recommends too: "I practice cold showering followed by a warm shower or I get in and out of a hot bath a few times to have a cold shower."
Rebekah recommends avoiding making cold water swimming part of your exercise regime and instead do it for the love of it. "Let go of exercise orientated goals; it doesn't matter how long you're in the water or how far you go. You'll feel better for just doing it."