Most people would avoid cold water swimming, but there might be benefits (like helping with depression, inflammation, etc.) to taking a quick dip in less than ideal temperatures as well as some hazards.
Cold water swimming is becoming popular thanks in part to evangelists like Wim Hom, athletes, and individuals with ailments like depression or weak immune systems. Although there is limited research on some of the claimed benefits, like it boosting immune function, studies do suggest that a quick swim in cold water can boost mood and help alleviate pain (1).
Boost in Mood: Perhaps the most well-known benefit of cold water swimming deals with mood. Taking a dip in cold water seems to activate the stress response (fight-or-flight) and trying to keep calm while in cold water may help manage this response. This can be beneficial for individuals with depression and anxiety (2).
Resist Oxidative Stress: A study suggested that cold water swimming may help us resist oxidative stress (3). The idea is that being exposed to low-dose oxidative stress will make the body adapt and resist it- which is achieved by dipping in cold water. The study showed higher levels of antioxidative activity in blood samples of cold water swimmers when compared to the control group.
Pain Management: A case study on a 28-year-old man with postsurgical pain suggests that cold water may help alleviate pain (4). The man was experiencing excruciating pain despite pain medication and physiotherapy. It was decided to give cold water a try and the results were almost unbelievable.
He reported having no pain during the swim and no pain afterward. While scientists hypothesize many explanations for this unique case, stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) do have some pain-alleviating effects.
Cold reduces swelling (inflammation) which is a source of pain. The body reacts to cold water by constricting blood vessels to the skin to reduce heat loss. This in turn lowers swelling and numbs the area. We do this every time we put a cold patch on a bruise to make it feel better. Cold water swimming isn’t always recommended, but the pain might make it worth a try.
Hypothermia: This happens when the body temperature gets dangerously low- the body loses heat faster than it can create it. When one goes into very cold water without a wetsuit hypothermia is very possible, for this reason, cold water swimming has to be in short periods, especially for beginners. It is better to gradually introduce the body to low-temperature water so that it may slowly adapt.
Cold Shock: Better known as the cold shock response, cold shock happens when quick cooling of the skin affects heart and lung activity. The response involved tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and hyperventilation (5). This response increases the chance of drowning and may cause heart problems in high-risk individuals.
Drowning: If your body is not used to cold water and if not properly executed swimming in cold water can lead to drowning. It is better to gradually expose the body to the cold temperatures and be mindful of time spent there. If possible, always have a friend around who can swim and help if there are signs of drowning. It’s especially important to be careful in areas of Santa Cruz where the ocean can be unpredictable.
If you don’t want to go through all the trouble of full-body immersion into cold water, our Vasper machine might be for you! Vasper is a low-impact recumbent cardio machine that includes cooled pressure cuffs with very low temperate, cold water running through it that you wear on your upper arms and legs, along with copper-lined foot pedals.
Placing compression on the arm and leg muscles while exercising at a low intensity has been scientifically shown to create the physiological effect of 2 hours of high-intensity exercise in just 20 minutes. The benefits of workouts out with Vasper are all-encompassing, making it the ULTIMATE fitness tool for regulating hormones, metabolism, sleep, performance, recovery, and even chronic pain. Read more about all the benefits here! If you’ve never tried it, try 3 free Vasper sessions in the month of May by calling us at 831.425.9500!
- Collier, Naomi, et al. “Cold Water Swimming and Upper Respiratory Tract Infections.” Extreme Physiology & Medicine, vol. 4, no. S1, 2015, doi:10.1186/2046-7648-4-s1-a36.
- Tulleken, Christoffer Van, et al. “Open Water Swimming as a Treatment for Major Depressive Disorder.” BMJ Case Reports, 2018, doi:10.1136/bcr-2018-225007.
- Siems, W.g. “Improved Antioxidative Protection in Winter Swimmers.” Qjm, vol. 92, no. 4, 1999, pp. 193–198., doi:10.1093/qjmed/92.4.193.
- “Cold Open Water Plunge Provides Instant Pain Relief.” BMJ, www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/cold-open-water-plunge-provides-instant-pain-relief/.
Eglin, Clare M, et al. “Rapid Habituation of the Cold Shock Response.” Extreme Physiology & Medicine, vol. 4, no. S1, 2015, doi:10.1186/2046-7648-4-s1-a38.