It's the wellbeing boost that midlife woman are obsessed with, including nowthe Princess of Wales. So why is cold water swimming so good for us?
Is there a woman in the UK who isn't into cold water swimming right now? (Cue tumbleweed). The Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton, has joined the vast tribe of people who now spend their free time leaping into lakes and strutting into the sea, regardless of temperature, in search of a wellbeing hit.
Appearing last week on Mike Tindall's sports podcast, The Good, The Bad and The Rugby, alongside various other members of the Royal family, Kate said, "I love swimming wherever I can. Cold swimming - the colder, the better. I absolutely love it. Slightly to the point where William's [saying], 'You're crazy' and it's dark and it's raining'. I will go and seek out cold water."
Thus spoken like a convert. We cannot confirm if Kate wears a Dryrobe on her swimming jaunts but we reckon she does - and looks impossibly chic in it to boot.
Cold water swimming enjoyed a huge boost during lockdowns when public pools were closed so swimmers had to get their fix elsewhere. Searches for outdoor swimming leaped by 94 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to Outdoor Swimmer magazine's annual report.
Post-pandemic, its popularity shows no sign of abating (and with Kate coming out of a fan, there will be a further surge in interest). Fans tend to be evangelical about its health benefits - and with good reason.
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 Dr 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,” 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 conditions 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. This 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 Postcards From Midlife podcaster Lorraine Candy, 54 who's been an avid outdoor swimmer for seven years. “I meet many people who’ve had depression and used the water to help them get over it.”
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, 49, founder of perimenopause supplement MPowder began feeling low and joyless 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 (aka Ice Man), the media-friendly pioneer of cold as a treatment for many ailments including depression to supporting the immune system.
Cold water swimming for confidence
Lorraine also credits cold water swimming in helping her both be braver and more confident. “Being in the water and overcoming the fear of it 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. And 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 lake or coastline nearby, begin with a few cold showers to try to acclimatise, advises Lorraine. It's a method Tara Swart recommends too: "I practise a cold shower 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 seeing cold water swimming part of your exercise regime and focus instead on its wellbeing benefits. "Let go of exercise-orientated goals; it doesn't matter how long you're in the water or how far you swim. You'll feel better for just doing it."
Staying safe while cold water swimming
Please don't start your cold water swimming career by jumping willy-nilly into the nearest lake, river or sea. First check out the RNLI's advice on how to keep safe.