Swimming in cold water will surprise you, but it is also a powerful practice in wellness. This winter season, I’ve been doing a bit of research and exploration of cold ocean water, starting with exactly what it does to the body.
Coogee is just cool enough
The annual “Polar Bear Plunge” takes place at Coney Island on New Year’s Day. That’s to say, it’s a cold day diving into really cold waters. They do something similar in Tasmania during the Southern Hemi-Solstice, except there in their cold waters shared with the Antarctic, they do it naked.
The waters in Sydney during the winter season tend to match the temperature of the air, which generally hovers around 17ºC. That’s pretty cold for most swimming pools, but when you’re going swimming it makes for a decently smooth transition.
Experts say the danger zone is anything lower than 15ºC, where real cold incapacitation–and hyperventilation–occurs.
You’d think this smooth transition is a secret of sorts, because hardly anyone even bothers to enjoy the beach in winter months. Very few even dip a toe without a wetsuit, so the beach is mostly empty.
That’s not to say it’s the best kept secret in terms of pleasantries. When you’re walking into the roaring ocean on a 65ºF day, it’s fuckin’ cold. And that’s just what you want from it.
There have been plenty of first-hand account of the magic of winter swims…
From a friend who loves to surf year round.
From a coworker who uses morning plunges as hangover cures.
From watching My Octopus Teacher, where the narrator says the icy waters literally “make his brain smarter.”
So this winter, forced back into lockdown, we started making it happen.
“The first claims for the health benefits of cold water swimming date back to 400 BC. According to Hippocrates, water therapy relieved fatigue, and later, Thomas Jefferson reportedly used a cold foot bath every morning for six decades to keep him healthy.”NCBI study on the health benefits of cold water swimming
The secret to enjoying it, really, is that you can’t think. The first step into the water is incredibly confronting. You KNOW what it feels like to get shocked cold and, as human experience would have it, we try to avoid it.
But the Octopus man is right. It shocks the skin, but the body adapts. The cold water kickstarts several of our internal systems, including the immune, lymphatic, circulatory, and digestive systems. It also does wonders externally, delivering mega benefits for hair and skin.
This is how.
What cold water does for the body
When your body goes in the cold water, at first it bristles. You to shiver, and begin to regret ever getting out of your clothes. The only thing you can do now is move, and from there, the body activates its many systems that will come into play.
Lymphatic vessels contract, helping the lymphatic system do its job of flushing toxins.
The immune system is also active when you’re in cold water. The more you do it, the more practiced your body is with boosting defences and creating white blood cells.
Cardio comes into play because, when you hit that water, that’s when your blood starts pumping. And that’s when the organs are fed and the body gets to feast on nutrients.
But the Octopus man said about the brain is what really struck me. Could it be that we can finally swap sudoku for swimming?
Cold water does give your brain something to work on, and that includes levels of happiness. Cold water–even showers–have shown to help reduce stress and boost happiness. Yes, the initial shock is a stressor, but your trusty body is designed to help counteract stressors, and that’s when it calls in the mood-boosting neurotransmitters.
As if all this isn’t enough, cold-water swimming seems it can also benefit your physique and skincare.
Just Keep Swimming
What I love the most about all this is that it’s such a simple thing. When you don’t think about it too much, it’s just going for a swim, something that is ingrained in us like instinct.
Swimming has been around for ages, like since the Ancient Egyptians some 4000 years ago. As civilization moved on, very few people very good at it. It wasn’t until 1538 that a language professor named Nicolas Wynman was like, “okay we have to do something about all these people drowning” and wrote the first official book on the subject.
Of course, now, that’s all changed. Some of my earliest memories are in the pool with plastic waterwings shoved up my armpits. I watched my nephews and niece go through the same. There are still some people who can’t swim, but even they can’t help but gravitate toward beaches in summertime, drawn to the siren calling of the water.
But people who go out swimming in the winter? Those bundled up on shore might consider them poor unfortunate souls. In reality, it’s in the cold water that the bountiful benefits exist.
Among these benefits is what cold swims might be able to do for body fat.
Body fat is necessary. It’s natural. It’s just part of our individual makeup which constructs our bodies into the incredibly complex and protective vessels that they are.
The goal isn’t to get rid of it entirely–the goal is not to hoard it unnecessarily. Cold water, they say, might be able to help clear that clutter.
It takes work for the body to warm itself, and as it puts in the work, it burns calories. While the body shivers itself to a comfortable temperature, it works off stores of “bad” white fat and keeps the “healthy” brown fat that works as our very own warming whale blubber.
And if that’s not enough to have you transforming into an Ice Queen, the cold water also tightens your pores, and stops your skin from making excess oil.
Your hair follows suit, constricting the follicles and preserving the shine. It does inspire me to experiment with how that works as opposed to my multi-stepped haircare routine.
To get out there and do it all again? To end a warm steamy shower with a cold shock? That’s an exercise in will-power.
Meeting the Maker
Those few moments between being swaddled in warm clothes and transitioning to cold water are not very comfortable. But as with all uncomfortable things in life, the reward lies beyond the fear.
Meeting the Pacific Ocean, for me, was an encounter filled with fear. I’d never known a body of water so intimidating. In the early days, I’d look out across it and have my mind scrambled by the sheer thought of the distance to the next spot of land. Everyone was always talking about sharks. On a few occasions in the water, I’d been pummelled so hard by waves and pulled so hard by currents that I started to question my confidence in swimming, whether I should go back to waterwings.
Gradually, as you would a new friend, I learned to understand it. My fear of big waves and undertows turned to respect. The respect made way for more understanding that it’s not just “the water” but it’s a world, an earthly body, a powerful god. As I got to know it in the winter, I began to understand why people came to this temple.
It takes a certain faith to trust it, to get amongst it, and to know when the time is right to do so. Today, a warm winter’s day, the time was right. And the post glow has me feeling kissed by an angel.