Wild swimming and cold water immersion are quite quickly becoming the most widely discussed topics in the world of health, well-being and fitness.
It’s definitely a real challenge, needing a ton of mental resilience and determination. Brought into the limelight by individuals such as Wim Hof, Sophie Hellyer and Tony Riddle, some swear by it, whilst others dismiss it as a waste of time (and mental energy). So we thought we’d delve a bit deeper into why it is such a hot topic. Is it a fad that will disappear once the next crazy idea comes along? Or is it something that we all should be incorporating into our routines?
You’ve probably heard of cryotherapy being used for professional athletes (when you see them sitting in a rectangular box, with just their head poking out the top) to help them recover quicker from intense exercise. And ice-packs are commonly used for sprains and strains, to help counter the build up of toxins and stop inflammation. But the cold can be used for much more than just physical rehabilitation.
Maybe even you’ve seen those Japanese baths at natural springs, and Swedish spas, where you’re supposed to jump in the cold plunge after a sauna. But is it just more than a cultural tradition?
Testing (times) in cold water
When the body makes contact with cold water, it forces blood vessels to constrict. As the body realises that it might be in danger it ensures the most important parts of the body are getting enough blood to keep it going in these altered (and more extreme) conditions. The body has to work harder to get the blood through more narrow blood vessels, meaning that over time this can improve the efficiency of our circulatory system.
In a research project carried out between the University of Miami School of Medicine and the Thrombosis Research Institute for the British Heart Foundation, patients introduced regular cold baths to their routines. Then gradually extended them from 5 to 20 minutes over a 12 week period. In the results, every single person’s blood pressure and cholesterol went down. People generally lost weight, their white blood cell count went up and pulse went down. All participants’ thyroxine levels increased, meaning better oxygen capacity in the blood. More testosterone was produced by the end of the 12 weeks in men, with more oestrogen and progesterone in women (that means increased libido and fertility).
When our body goes into this ‘shock’ mode, it registers that it might need a bit of extra help to ward off other potential dangers, so it generates more white blood cells. It’s the white blood cells’ job to fight off infections, like bacteria and viruses.
Circulation & the body’s response to cold water
More oxygen sent around the body leads to us being able to exercise harder and for longer, achieve lower blood pressure and improve our metabolism.
Vitamins and nutrients are more efficiently delivered around the body. Think calcium for strong bones, thiamine to help your nervous system function well, vitamin K to help wounds heal, and vitamin E to keep your skin radiant and eyes healthy.
More white blood cells means greater immunity to not just coughs and colds. There have been cases of individuals who have started to swim in cold water regularly stunting the growth of tumors in the body, as well as slowing the deterioration of people with dementia, arthritis and Crohn’s disease, even eradicating the symptoms caused from menopause.
The man who seems mostly responsible for cold water immersion and wild swimming being such a hot topic in today’s media is Wim Hof. Having managed to swim 57 metres under the ice (making him momentarily blind), he scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro in nothing but a pair of boxers, and created a worldwide community who wait with baited breath to learn more about his apparently ground-breaking breathing techniques and self-styled cold-water training.
One of Wim’s most mind-boggling feats took place attached to sticky pads, wires and monitors. Sitting in a hospital bed, a strain of the E.Coli bacteria was injected into his bloodstream. Normally, this would have triggered diarrhea, abdominal cramping and septic shock, in any human body, which can then lead onto acute confusion and dizziness and even organ failure. With no medical intervention, Wim Hof somehow managed to fight off the bacteria by self-regulating adrenaline. Now, it is commonly accepted in the scientific world that the nervous system is automatic. We should have no control over it (including how much adrenaline is released) and they just do their job by themselves however hard we try to influence our responses to certain situations. But the results from this experiment went against what was generally considered ‘fact’.
Scientists thought he might just be a freak of nature. So Wim brought in 6 of his own students, who had all been practicing the “Wim Hof Method’ religiously as well. They too underwent the same test. The overriding results were the same.
So, are there some magical powers that cold water immersion can give us?
Aside from medical proof, the feelings we experience can at least make us feel pretty invincible. Certain endorphins are released into the blood when we swim in the sea, a lake or river, considerably lowering the body’s core temperature. Endorphins are the feel-good hormones that make our mood improve when we eat chocolate, finish a work-out, eat spicy food or laugh. They are the body’s natural way to relieve stress and pain.
The moment you are up to your neck, the initial shivers have started and you’re forced to concentrate on your breathing, this pure focus eradicates any other space in the mind to think about niggles of everyday life. The longer you stay in the cold water, you’re also training your mental capacity to overcome obstacles.
In an interview with a sufferer of depression and PTSD with “Mind” (the British mental health charity), she recounts her weekly swims in six degree water on her local beach: “Initially, I think it appealed to me because it numbed my body in the same way I felt my mind was numb. The intense cold then made me briefly feel alive in a way that I hadn’t experienced for months.” She links her sea swimming to improving her sleep patterns, and allows her to stop over-thinking everything.
Did anyone see the BBC documentary “The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs”? One of the cases is about a lady who had a major depressive disorder, who had been on strong medication for 7 years. The doctor in question, Dr Chris van Tulleke, persuaded her to take up weekly sessions in open, cold water. Over time, Sarah gave up her medication entirely. She still is drug-free, two years later.
Now this case is not conclusive, but it’s got to mean something if NHS GPs are prescribing exercise as an alternative to synthetic medical treatment to treat depression? Even surfing has been recommended to war veterans to help deal with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)?
The benefits that have been tested of cold water contact aren’t just internal. Rather than having a steaming shower, turning down the temperature dial can help seal your hair cuticles. Cold water will help smooth the hair, leaving it looking shinier.
Having a bath or shower in hot water also robs your skin of its natural oils, which means you’re more likely to have a less healthy-looking and drier complexion. Research findings have also discovered that hot water bathing can inflame various skin complaints, such as acne and psoriasis, with cold water often minimising the symptoms.
But this doesn’t mean an in-and-out skinny dip whilst on holiday in Northern Ireland. Of course you can feel the immediate effects of that ‘glowing’ feeling by going in for a quick splash. But a lot of these research projects involve patients being immersed in a variety of conditions, ranging from 5 degree water for 3 minutes, to 20 degree water for 60 minutes.
All we can say is that if you are brave (some might say crazy) enough to want to give this a go, it is super important to ensure you’re doing it safely.
Fancy trying a cold water swim yourself?
If you’d think you’d like to give it a try, we’d be more than happy to send you some top tips on how to slowly introduce cold water swimming, in order to experience the benefits yourself. Your priority is to stay safe, so click the LINK HERE and we’ll send you some suggestions on where to find other like-minded adrenaline-junkies. For all of our Scottish readers, we can send you over a list of wild swimming hot spots in Scotland.
Not only is it a safer option to swim in groups or pairs, in case something goes wrong, but you’re creating a sense of camaraderie. You can hold others accountable to push past the hardest first 30 seconds or so, as they too can ensure you won’t chicken out either. Motivate each other and celebrate your joint achievements.
Here at Beyond Fitness we believe in the experiences we have outdoors as much as the exercise itself.
We’d always put our mental well-being before a solid workout, so we jumped at the chance to take part in an activity that required us to be outside, that was going to help us psychologically, but didn’t necessarily demand us to get sweaty, huffing and puffing.
If we’re stuck inside in a gym, there is often a feeling of obligation, comparing yourself to the person next to you, rolling your eyes at the guys who can’t take their eyes away from the mirrors, pouting as they count their 40th bicep curl. Okay sorry to those of you who enjoy going to the gym, but we are entitled to our point of view, and we’d always choose working out outside, instead of being stuck within four walls.
So we’re starting to get into it, braving the icy waters of the Lochs here in the Trossachs. The build up is tense, not to mention how easy it is to just think “ah, it’s ok, I’ll just have a day off today”. But the rewards are incredible. You feel like a million dollars.
Disclaimer: please consult with a Doctor or a medical professional before taking part in any cold water swimming, especially if you have any heart complications, underlying health conditions or are affected by drastic temperature change.