What if someone told you to go jump in the Hudson River? Or the San Francisco Bay? You’d probably reply with a few expletives and hand gestures (especially if you’re a New Yorker). But what if you were told that swimming in cold water may extend your life and make you, overall, a much happier person?
Before a few months ago, I hadn’t thought much of cold water swims. I knew of the Polar Bear Club Plunge off of Coney Island on New Year’s Day, and triathlons in both San Francisco and New York City that required swimming in their respective rivers. But these were once-in-a-lifetime events for the super athletic (and potentially maniacal). (And I think most of those people use wetsuits.) Little did I know, I’d soon be swimming in one of those frigid rivers myself—and enjoying it.
Famous motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and Tim Ferriss spend small fortunes on cryogenic chambers (cold, dry air submersions) and freezers of ice packs (for cold baths) to get the same effect one may receive from jumping into their local watering hole without a wetsuit.
In the past month, I’ve swam five times in the San Francisco Bay , where water temperatures hover between 55 and 60 degrees. (The Hudson River is currently at 56 degrees, so it’s not far off.) I’ve met people who swim in the San Francisco Bay for seventy minutes at a clip, six days a week. Most of these people are in their sixties and seventies, and look like they’re in their fifties. But aside from how great they look, these people are some of the happiest I’ve ever seen. They have an upbeat and confident energy that emanates from their whole being, and it’s magnetic.
Why is this? Turns out cold water swimming (the definition of cold water is a heavily argued topic among swimmers, but the general consensus is any water below 63.5°F, no wetsuit), and even a simple cold water immersion has many health benefits. These include eliminating disease, improving mood, and prolonging life spans- in addition to making you look stellar. What can it do for you?
Improve your circulation. The initial shock of cold water on the body forces it to react quickly. Blood flushes throughout the body’s veins, arteries and capillaries, purging your system of toxins down to the lymphatic system. Circulation is improved, which can reduce the feeling of being cold frequently. Most women who swim in cold water are convinced it even eliminates cellulite, tightening the epidermal layer overall. This systemic flush exfoliates the skin’s surface, resulting in younger looking skin.
As someone who is cold almost all the time (and doesn’t mind having better skin), this is a huge benefit.
Boost your immune system. A person’s white blood cell count increases to fight the purging of toxins from the body’s lymphatic system’s release. Over time, this helps improve the body’s defenses, resulting in fewer colds. (Studies done in the Czech Republic indicate that cold water swimmers have 40% less upper respiratory diseases.)
Get an all-natural high. The feeling of well-being that overcomes us from an ice cold plunge is due to a release of endorphins triggered when we approach a pain barrier (…or an orgasm). In addition, the cold stimulates the parasympathetic system (usually responsible for rest and repair), releasing dopamine and serotonin. This coupled with endorphins is enough to zap depression, and release a flood of euphoria.
Improve your sex life. Studies have found that cold water immersion has increased testosterone for men and estrogen for women, enhancing the libido and improving fertility.
Burn calories fast. Metabolism is boosted through increased blood circulation to keep the body warm. Twice the number of calories are burned in cold water swims versus normal temperatures. White fat (which creates that roll around the waste) is burned, while brown fat (which protects the organs) is produced.
Reduce stress. The body will go through stress (oxidative stress) from the initial cold water plunge, which ultimately results in less stress (or improved stress protection). The result? Cold water swimmers who are generally calmer, happier, more relaxed and stronger all around.
Above all, researchers are seeing an increased life expectancy and quality of life for cold water swimmers.
Be aware: As you enter cold water for a swim, take your time and let your body adjust (fight the urge to completely submerge right away). Your body will go into shock and hyperventilate for the first minute or so. Work up to spending longer time periods in cold water. You may want to get a good swim workout initially, but keep it short: Spend five minutes swimming the first time, increasing the amount of time in the water each time you do it. Build up to a 15-30 minute swim (1/2 mile-1 mile). Once you’re good with a mile swim, you can do longer stints and that’s when the health benefits really start to take effect.
For those of us who may not be near an access point for ‘wild’ cold water swimming, try a cold shower or bath instead. It’ll take some time to get used to, but you’ll start looking forward to the alert and happy feeling it produces.
Next time someone tells you to go jump in a river, I hope you respond with: Great idea, I may do just that.
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