What happens to your body during cold water swimming or ice baths?
When our bodies are exposed to extreme cold, we have a ‘fight or flight’ response that kicks into action. This is usually triggered by stress or danger.
Once our fight or flight response starts working, the stress hormone noradrenaline is released, which makes us more alert and boosts our concentration, among many other important things.
So let’s talk a bit more about the physical and mental health benefits of getting chilly in the water.
How does cold water swimming or an ice bath improve our physical health?
According to UK research, there are lots of health benefits of cold water swimming as well as having an ice bath (taken with the right safety precautions).
Here are some highlights of the science behind cold water and our health.
Speeds up your metabolism
When you’re swimming in cold water or having a cold bath, your body has to work harder to stay warm – and as a result, you burn calories much quicker. The colder the water, the harder your body has to work to turn fat stores into energy.
Improves your circulation
The sudden change in temperature from being immersed in an ice bath or swimming in cold water tells our heart that it needs to pump more blood to our organs. In turn, this improves our circulation and helps flush toxins out of our system, giving our skin a healthy glow! The increased blood flow also helps to flush waste products and reduce muscle inflammation - which is why lots of athletes choose to have an ice bath after taking part in intense sport.
Gets you a better night’s sleep
Swimming in cold water and taking ice baths regularly can lead to better sleep too. The effect of cold water stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps our body rest and repair - and promotes a feeling of calm to help us sleep.
Boosts your immune system
Spending time in cold water or a cold bath gives your body a ‘cold water shock’ and this can kickstart the immune system through the production of white blood cells and antioxidants. These are needed to prevent all kinds of illnesses from the common cold to heart disease.
Can cold water swimming improve our mental health too?
As well as being a fun and free activity to take part in all year round, cold water swimming has been shown to be beneficial for our mental health too.
Anxiety and depression
The motion of swimming can help reduce anxiety and depression as you focus on your body’s movement – and is a great form of exercise for mindfulness. And by swimming in cold water, your body produces even more endorphins to combat stressful feelings.
Regular cold water swimming can help us to cope better with different types of stress, as the body starts to learn how to regulate our stress hormones like dopamine. Your body sends a signal to the heart to beat faster and this helps to heat up our body and give us more energy.
Mood and confidence
The increase in adrenaline from being in cold water can create a feeling of euphoria. This is caused by the release of endorphins – a hormone that makes us feel good and can even relieve pain. As a result, cold water swimming or a cold bath can improve our overall mood, confidence and even libido.
8 tips to take part in cold water swimming safely
Avoid cold water swimming on your own – there are many wild swimming groups in the UK and you can find your nearest one online.
Choose a lido or well known safe place for cold water swimming, that’s deep enough for a dip. And make sure you know how to exit the water before you get in.
It’s a good idea to wear a wetsuit if you’re new to outdoor swimming and you can build up to just wearing a swimming costume (to feel the health benefits of cold water swimming even more).
If you're cold water swimming in the middle of winter, you can wear waterproof gloves to keep your hands warm, as well as a silicone swimming cap.
Start slowly and ease yourself in, as it can be hard to control your breathing at first. Let yourself get used to the temperature for a few minutes, where you can still touch the bottom or hold onto a ladder.
Don’t stay in the cold water (or a cold bath) for too long - you may start to stiffen up after 15-20 minutes. You’ll get those mental health benefits in the first 2-3 minutes so there’s no need to stay in for a long time.
Warm up properly – your body will continue to cool down for about half an hour after cold water swimming. Layer up with warm clothes, and have a hot drink and snack before you carry on with your day.