Taking the plunge: does cold water swimming have health benefits?

Cold water could have benefits - if you can pluck up the courage to dive in.

Between June and September, I swim in the sea as often as I can. But quite apart from the pleasures of doing exercise in the great outdoors, what are the health benefits, if any, to be had from a dip in the ocean or a cold river?

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A few years ago I made a film with Wim Hof, also known as ‘The Ice Man’. Wim assured me that cold water can lead to a “cascade of health benefits”, including fat loss, a strengthened immune system and the production of mood-boosting endorphins.

Read more from Michael Mosley:

There is evidence that cold water encourages the development of brown fat (which burns calories) and clearly, if you do a lot of swimming in cold water then you are going to burn your way through a lot of calories. But I suspect most of us will not stay in long enough for this to have a significant impact on our body mass.

As for boosting your immune system, the jury is still out. There have been plenty of animal studies, but few randomised human trials. One Dutch study published in 2016 in the journal PLOS One recruited 3,018 people and randomly allocated them to having a cold shower every morning for a month, or to a control group.

By chance, while the experiment was going on, there was an outbreak of flu and it turned out that those people having cold showers were 30 per cent less likely to take time off for sickness than those in a control group. Even better, a 30-second blast of cold water gave the same benefits as sticking to it for longer.

But what about improving mood? Again, there’s not a huge amount of research or randomised trials, but there was a rather brutal study from 2000 where scientists looked at the impact of keeping young men in a tank of chilly water (14°C) for up to an hour.

Among other things they found that being in cold water increased their metabolic rate by 350 per cent and boosted levels of dopamine (a ‘feel-good chemical’) by 250 per cent.

Quite apart from the pleasures of doing exercise in the great outdoors, what are the health benefits, if any, to be had from a dip in the ocean or a cold river? © Pepe Serra
Quite apart from the pleasures of doing exercise in the great outdoors, what are the health benefits, if any, to be had from a dip in the ocean or a cold river? © Pepe Serra

There have, however, been some intriguing individual stories linking cold water swimming to improvements in mental health, like one published recently in the British Medical Journal. It looked at the case of a 24-year-old woman called Sarah who had been taking antidepressants since the age of 17.

A couple of years ago she began a programme of weekly cold water swimming, which led to an instant improvement in her mood and in time she was able to come off medication.

If you plan to go cold water swimming, be cautious and don’t do it alone. If you are not used to the temperature of the water, your first, involuntary reaction to jumping in will be to take a gasp of air, and if you are underwater at the time this can be fatal.

And as I discovered recently it can also wipe your memory, albeit temporarily, through a condition called ‘transient global amnesia’. But that’s another story…


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