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Lake Ingalls near Mount Stuart, Washington in mid October after first snow fall, by Ralph Teller
Ralph Teller

Cold Water Swimming and Cold Water Bathing Health Benefits

by Ralph Teller

Cold Water Swimming Can Improve Health and Vigor

Cold water swimming can be very beneficial to long term optimum health. Routine swimming in cold water can (i) boost metabolism, (ii) improve blood circulation,(iii) help build and maintain a strong immune system, (iv) improve skin tone and skin health, (v) improve libido and fertility, (vi) release endorphins to improve feeling of wellness and vigor, and (vii) encourages good sleep.

Cold water swimming is enjoyable year round from Melbourne to Scandinavia, Washington State to England and Ireland, and San Francisco to Germany. For most, cold water swimming is swimming in water under 60 degrees F (15 degrees C ) without a wetsuit. For others, it is swimming under 50 degrees F (10 degrees C). For the most hardy, swimming under 40 degrees F (4.4 degrees C) is an invigorating challenge.

Some Tips and Precautions First!

Before taking the plunge, it is important to understand some of the dangers of cold water swimming! Here are some precautionary considerations and some tips:

  • Slowly build tolerance by starting in less cool water building your tolerance before swimming in cooler water. As your tolerance increases and acclimates to cooler water you can increase your time in the water. Taking cool and then cold water showers or baths are a good way to begin to build tolerance to cold water.
  • Hyperventilation can occur upon sudden immersion in ice cold water. Hyperventilation result in a spontaneous gasp followed by 1 - 3 minutes of involuntary hyperventilation. Specific data are: 2.0 liter gasp in 82o water and 3.0 liter gasp in 50o water (i.e. nearly your entire lung volume), and in 50o water a 600 - 1,000 percent increase in ventilation (air in and out) in the first minute. This hyperventilation results in a profound lowering of blood carbon dioxide levels and a raising of blood pH levels.
  • Hypothermia can occur when our core body temperature falls more than 4 degrees.
  • Severe cold water swimming or dipping can be a significant shock to our system and is not recommended unless and until you have built a solid tolerance to cold water.
  • Be fully hydrated prior to your swim and have good electrolytes balance. See Swimming Hydration and Electrolyte Strategies for Peak Performance and Muscle Cramp Prevention
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine prior to your swim as alcohol is dehydrating, impairs judgment, dulls senses and lowers resistance to cool water and cold temperatures. Two days prior to cold water swimming it is recommended to avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugars as much as possible as they are natural diuretics (cause dehydration). See How Caffeine Impacts Athletic Performance
  • High blood pressure, Hypertension or underlying Heart Disease. The strain placed on the heart are not likely to be a problem for a healthy, fit person but may be dangerous for those with underlying heart disease, high blood pressure or hypertension. Professor William R. Keating from the University of London indicates that there is little health risk in cold-water swimming unless a person starts suddenly at an old age or has underlying heart disease.
  • Boosts Metabolism

    Cold water baths or swimming in cold water boosts Metabolism through increased blood circulation and increasing metabolic activity focused on generating internal heat to keep our body warm.

    Stimulates Parasympathetic System Releases Endorphins to Feel Well and Vigorous

    Cold water also stimulates our parasympathetic system, which is responsible for rest and repair. This stimulation can trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are a vital part of keeping us happy and low levels of them are linked with depression.There is a natural high that comes from the rush of endorphins on entering the water. The endorphin rush happens quickly and makes you feel alive and happy!

    Improves Blood Circulation

    Evidence also demonstrates that your body adapts to the cold with repeated exposure and this may improve your circulation to your core and to your extremities. Cold water swims or baths helps flush your circulation by pushing blood through all your capillaries, veins and arteries. The rapid initial cooling of the skin triggers various heart and breathing responses. Breathing rates will increase suddenly. The heart rate can increase by 50% and blood pressure increase can increase to 175/93. Although a substantial strain on the heart, these changes are not likely to be a problem for a healthy, fit person but may be dangerous for those with underlying heart disease or hypertension.

    Improves Libido and Fertility

    Researchers have also found that cold water swimming and bathing can increase production of testosterone and estrogen in men and women respectively. In addition to enhancing libido in both sexes, these hormones also play an important role in fertility.

    Improves Skin Health and Tone

    Cold water swimming or baths will exfoliate and cleanse your skin by flushing impurities from it, therby helping your complexion and skin tone. I've noticed my skin feels clean and vibrant after taking a swim in cold water and looks more healthy.

    Helps Build and Maintain Strong Immune System

    Scientists from the Czech Republic immersed witting subjects in cold water for one hour, three times a week and monitored their physiology. They found significant increases in white blood cell counts and several other factors relating to the immune system. This was attributed to the cold water being a mild stressor which activates the immune system and gives it some practice through stress. It also seems likely the increased blood circulation the vital organs also improve the immune system. Swimmers in general and cold water swimmers in particular seem to come down with fewer colds.

    More about Ralph Teller. See Ralph's 1Vigor Log Calendar.

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