I want to start by saying, I am NOT a swimmer! I am a runner, a cyclist, and an aerobics queen. I am absolutely, categorically, not a natural swimmer.
I love being at the water, or on the water, or even a quick dip in the water, but this new hobby is challenging to say the least!
The first time I went in for what I call a ‘proper’ swim, we swam 750m and I got a cramp in my left calf. Not a pleasant experience! But the whole point of this cold-water swimming is to test your strength - both physically and mentally.
One of the things that really interests me, with so many clients in mind, is that researchers all over the world are looking into the scientific benefits of cold-water swimming for people who are experiencing mental health problems, and are suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. I mean, it’s one of the most common ailments in 2020. According to research the mood benefits of cold-water swimming can be divided into two phases: the initial ‘cold shock’ response, and then the adaptation that happens over the longer term.
Many times, I have taken part in our traditional New Year’s Day cold winter dip! It literally takes your breath away to the point of hyperventilating! Adrenaline surges through your body, the heart races and your blood pressure skyrockets! Glucose and fats are being released into your bloodstream, providing an energy source should you need to make a quick escape. This is the classic ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
The best thing about cold water swimming is the adaptation makes you less reactive to the shock of cold water, but could also make you less reactive to stress.
Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released from your adrenal glands, which maintains this state for minutes to hours, while beta-endorphin hormones in the brain provides pain relief and gives a sense of euphoria. After a while your heart and breathing rates only rise half as much, you panic less, and you can control your breathing. This adaptation makes you less reactive to the shock of cold water, but it could also make you less reactive to everyday stress. Just as stress causes an adrenaline surge, preparing us to attack or to run, it also kick-starts the immune system in preparation for possible wounding or infection. This protective response, called inflammation, is healthy when stressful events are rare and isolated, but it can become chronic when people experience stress every day. What’s more, chronic inflammation has been linked to depression. So, if adapting to the stress of cold water can decrease our general stress response and reduce inflammation, then it can potentially reduce our risk of depression too.
Many open water swimmers talk about how their hobby has benefitted their mental and physical health, and it’s not hard to see why. The exercise itself is good for the body, and spending time by water is associated with increased wellbeing. Swimming with others gives a great sense of community, and completing a challenging task creates a sense of achievement.