No matter how low the temperature drops, Dennis Thomas hits the beach in Coney Island every Sunday from November to April to take a bath in the chilly Atlantic Ocean.
These winter swims, according to Thomas, president of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, provide more than simply a jolting adrenaline boost. He thinks they’re the cause of his physical fitness, mental acuity, and lack of serious illnesses at the age of 67.
The 35-year-old Thomas, a brand manager for a software business who commutes 5 miles on bike, says, “I’ve been doing this for 35 years.” “Physically, I can state that I no longer have as many winter colds. It helps me to mentally relax. When you’re in water that cold, it’s like a mental purge and cleanse because you can’t think about anything that’s bothering you.
Thomas and his fellow polar bears have long held this belief, and new evidence from Norway seems to support it.
Researchers from UiT The Arctic University of Norway and the University Hospital of North Norway conducted a comprehensive evaluation of 104 papers and found compelling evidence that cold-water swims and therapies based on them had considerable positive effects on physical and mental health.
According to a study written in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Circumpolar Health, swimming in ice-cold water helps men lose “bad” body fat. According to the scientists, it also promotes the production of “good” fat, which aids in calorie burning and fights diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.
The advantages of immersion in cold water have been shown by numerous minor studies over the years, according to James Mercer, PhD, a thermal physiology expert from the University of Toronto who conducted the latest study. The latest research, however, is one of the most thorough analyses of the advantages of cold-water swimming, bathing, showering, and therapies that include subjecting the body to low temperatures.
“You hardly ever run into a cold-water swimmer who views the sport negatively. They all vouch for it, claims Mercer.
According to Mercer, there is mounting evidence that swimming in cold water improves health. These advantages include enhanced heart health, mental wellness, and more, in addition to increased libido.
But we have to start somewhere, and what we’re seeing right now, I think without a question, is that in some areas… indeed, there may be some potential positive benefits, says Mercer. More research will help establish the connection.
It’s Not New Trend
In many nations with colder winter climates, cold-water swims and cures have been used for millennia.
The practise of “ice swimming,” where the frozen ice over a lake or pond has been removed to reveal the water underneath, is so popular that international organisations, the International Ice Swimming Association and the International Winter Swimming Association, have emerged to promote the sport.
Ice swimmers generally dive into water that is colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes even at or just below freezing, according to Mercer’s team.
Many people who participate in these exercises claim that, in addition to other advantages, they feel that the practise has improved their immune system function, enhanced mental health (and reduced depression), circulation, and even libido.
However, the current study offers more scientific clarification on how activities like swimming in freezing water, taking cold showers or baths, and being exposed to colder water and air temperatures may have positive health effects.
In order to conduct the review, Mercer’s team carefully combed the scientific literature on the subject, omitting trials in which participants wore wet suits, unintentionally submerged themselves in cold water, or were exposed to water that was warmer than 68 degrees.
Among their discoveries:
- Studies have provided compelling evidence that the general cardiovascular health of cold-water swimmers frequently improves significantly.
- Immersion in cold water sets up a “shock response” that strains the cardiovascular system and increases heart rate, which is a primary objective of high-intensity, heart-healthy exercise.
- Ice baths and other hydrotherapies can help alleviate autoimmune inflammation, lower cholesterol, stimulate the immune system, relieve pain, and hasten the healing process after sports injuries.
- The body’s reserves of so-called “brown adipose tissue” (BAT), a form of “good” body fat that is triggered by low temperatures, are increased by cold-water swimming. In contrast to “bad” white fat, which stores energy and increases the risk of obesity, BAT burns calories to maintain body heat, which can result in weight loss.
- Adiponectin, a protein that aids in preventing insulin resistance, diabetes, and other disorders, is produced in greater quantities by BAT when exposed to cold water or air.
- Immersions in cold water significantly improve insulin sensitivity and lower insulin levels. Both beginners and seasoned swimmers can agree with this.
- Winter swimmers frequently report feeling “joyful” in the water, indicating that the sport is beneficial for their mental and cognitive growth.
The participants in the 104 trials had a wide range, according to the researchers. They varied from competitive swimmers to frequent winter swimmers to individuals who had never done winter swimming before. Others employed cold-water immersion as a recovery technique after exercise but weren’t strictly ice bathers.
They highlighted that the health advantages seen in the studies might be influenced by variables more than just exposure to cold water. For example, swimmers who prefer cold water might be “naturally healthier” as a group and have more active lifestyles. They engage in positive social interactions as a result of these activities, have learnt stress management skills (typically through mindfulness, breathing exercises, and meditation), eat healthily, and exhibit “a positive mindset,” according to the authors.
Mercer claims that his findings are applicable to other cold-water therapies, such as taking ice baths after exercising, taking cold showers, and similar procedures, in addition to swimming in frigid water.
Advice for Starting
You don’t have to plunge into an icy lake, pond, or the ocean in the dead of winter to try out cold-water immersion. The following strategies are advised by Amanda Alexander, ND, a naturopathic physician at Sonoran University of Health Sciences in Tempe, Arizona, and other professionals:
- When taking a shower, progressively lower the water’s temperature until it is chilly for 30 to 60 seconds. This may also reduce congestion and increase energy levels by encouraging blood circulation to the surface where cold water is applied.
- Additionally, you can forego the warm-up and jump right into a cold shower, especially following a strenuous workout.
- By activating a pump-like effect inside the circulatory and lymphatic systems, wearing cold, wet socks also aids in improving blood and nutrient circulation, boosting energy, and hastening the recovery from an acute sickness with fever.
- Take a soak in ice. Until the water is between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, add ice to it. Ice baths have long been a favourite among athletes, especially for injured muscles. Limit your time under water to 10 to 15 minutes.
- At least initially, don’t swim in water that is icy cold but rather in an unheated pool.
Alexander, Mercer, and other experts advise consulting your doctor first if you have a heart condition or other health concerns before attempting cold-water immersion.
For novices, it’s a good idea to start off slowly, limit your first experiences to a short period of time, and then gradually expand your time in the water as your tolerance for the cold rises. In order to reduce the chance of hypothermia, make careful to warm up after any cold-water immersion.
If you’re not accustomed to this kind of activity, you should be informed of the risks before becoming engaged, according to Mercer. “What I’m worried about is that people will go and plunge into icy-cold water without being habituated to it, possibly not recognising they might have some underlying health concern,” the author says.
Nevertheless, Mercer claims that, based on his own studies, he would not think twice about advising cold-water swimming.
“But there’s a caveat: If you do it, at least when you’re first starting out, don’t go into the coldest water, and maybe do it with other people who know what they’re doing because there are hazards involved and people may die. The physical strain of ice swimming is fairly great. Overall yet, there are some definite signs that there are advantages.
Understanding the Polar Bear
The head of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, Thomas, understands that not everyone enjoys swimming in cold water and that newcomers and those with existing medical conditions should exercise caution.
But he only knows of a handful of people who have had bad luck or health issues while participating in the club’s regular Sunday winter swims.
He advises anyone who is unfamiliar with it or has any concerns to speak with their doctor first. “However, in all these years, I haven’t seen any heart attacks; I’ve only seen a few situations where patients experienced a response, minor hypothermia.”
Thomas watched a bunch of polar bear swimmers dive into the water one chilly Sunday morning in the 1980s, and that inspired him to take his first winter plunge. He joined the group, which has 130 members, on a whim and with the expectation that it would be a one-time thing. However, he found it to be so enjoyable that he made the decision to return every Sunday.
So how does he handle the freezing water temperatures?
He laughs and replies, “People ask me that all the time — is it mind control that allows you to pretend it’s not so cold. “No, it’s always cold, is the answer. To be honest, I do it now because it’s fair to say that I know what to expect.
Thomas says that the study results from Mercer are encouraging because they confirm what members of Polar Bear have long believed to be true.
Over the years, “we’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence, tiny research studies, and such,” he claims. Anyone who engages in this activity sincerely feels that it will benefit them in some way, whether it is psychological, spiritual, or otherwise. Therefore, I’m not shocked that science is beginning to support that.