The Life-Boosting Powers of Cold Water Swimming

Cold-water swimming has seen a boom in popularity over the past several years, with its enthusiasts saying it helps with mood, energy and even menopause.

For the last two years, Gillian Goerzen has been heading down to the beach a few days a week, right around dawn—no matter the weather. The swimming spot she likes is only a short drive from her home in Nanaimo, B.C., but two years of swims hasn’t make the initial shock of the cold water any easier. In her bathing suit, she’ll ease her way in up to her waist, pause to rally some inner strength, then keep on walking, gasping as the water reaches her chest. It’s tough, but from that point, Goerzen says, it only gets better. “Now I’m so convinced of the benefits that it just doesn’t stop me, even if the weather is crappy,” she says. “I’ve even dipped in the snow.”

Goerzen’s practice is known as cold-water dipping—or plunging, or even wild swimming. She’s part of a trend, partially pandemic-driven, of people who are intentionally submerging themselves in cold water during the fall and winter months. And the benefits she mentioned? It’s those reported positive effects—improved mental health, a metabolism boost, a reduction in menopause symptoms, deeper sleep—that keep enthusiasts hooked.

The roots of cold-water swimming go back as far as 400 BCE, when Hippocrates prescribed it as a therapy for fatigue. In more recent times, Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete Wim Hof—known for teaching breathing techniques that he says can boost immunity—has gained a cult-like following for his advice on braving the cold. Gwyneth Paltrow even dedicated an episode to Hof and his work on her Netflix series The Goop Lab.

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Swimmers bundle up after a frosty dip at Jack Darling Memorial Park in Mississauga, Ont.
Ikea bags double as gear totes and changing mats to keep feet off the cold sand.

But long before its pandemic-era popularity, winter swimming has been a national pastime in Nordic countries like Finland, where cold-water swimming clubs—essentially changing rooms with saunas by an ocean dock—can have waitlists of 300 people. In fact, according to a recent survey, nearly 700,000 of Finland’s 5.5 million residents regularly winter swim. Katja Pantzar, a Finnish Canadian writer living in Helsinki, discovered winter swimming herself eight years ago while writing a book about the trend. Since then, she’s written a couple of books featuring the practice—including the recently published Everyday Sisu: Tapping into Finnish Fortitude for a Happier, More Resilient Life.

Sisu, Pantzar says, is the Finnish term for a unique type of inner strength that helps you face life’s challenges. “They can be big-picture issues like war, or an Olympic victory, or it can also be the daily things, like… I need to have that difficult conversation with my boss, or my spouse,” she explains. “You tap into sisu, and the grit or the fortitude is the courage.” Practicing small stressors—like cold-water swimming—can help you build up that sisu, so you can deal with the bigger ones.

It’s a sentiment that Vernon, B.C.-based counsellor Anna Cahill supports through her work using trauma-informed approaches. Ever since she first saw the benefits of cold-water swimming herself, the practice has been a tool she recommends to her clients, while also sharing the risks of the practice and urging her clients to check with a doctor before going for a dip. Cahill tried it a few years ago after reading about Irish author Ruth Fitzmaurice’s ritual of jumping into the sea every day, which she described as a reset button. “If you need to make some changes—to start a creative practice, change your relationship, change your work—there’s nothing that will give you the confidence to do it like jumping into a cold body of water,” says Cahill, 56. “I promise: There’s just something about the process that allows you to confront your fears.”

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Gillian Goerzen, a body-positive fitness coach (centre, in grey toque), chats with other
swimmers before a plunge at Barnet Marine Park in Burnaby, B.C. “The type of people who are attracted
to cold-water dipping are genuine and kind-hearted,” she says.

There’s evidence that the practice can also counter depression and anxiety, even for swimmers who only dip once or twice a week. Rob Whitley, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, studies how people recover from mental illness. “Part of my job is to elicit from them what really helped them in their recovery, be it medication or formal therapies,” he says. “And I’ve heard from many, many people in my studies that going swimming in lakes and rivers and oceans was really helpful.”

The benefits of an icy dip can range from the simple to the complex, he says. “When people go cold-water swimming, they’re typically outdoors, in nature; they’re exposed to sunlight, they’re in what we call blue space,” he says. “And often they do it with other people, which is a social activity, and we know [that’s] good for mental health.”

Goerzen agrees that the social aspect is a huge part of what makes the experience positive for her. “It’s not just the cold water, though that’s part of it,” says the 44-year-old, who works as a body-positive health coach. “I’m in nature, I’m spending time with other really cool people—and my experience has been that the type of people who are attracted to cold-water dipping are very genuine, kind-hearted people.” (Swimming with others has another positive side effect: safety. First-time swimmers should always head out with a buddy, to ensure they don’t experience any unexpected side effects alone in the water.)

Combine that social interaction with cold water, Whitley says, and things start to get interesting. When the body is exposed to cold temperatures quickly, it tries to compensate for the shock. “Your blood circulates more quickly and in an improved manner,” he says. “It distributes nutrients a lot better to deep tissues, and on a parallel level, it removes toxins.” Swimmers often feel an urge to urinate after they’re in the water—a sign that the body has worked to naturally eliminate waste products in the body.

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Bebhinn Pidgeon (seen here with her rescue dog, Maya) runs a cold-water swim group out of Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. “You take in the water, you
take in the mountains, and focus on your breath,” she says. “I just get really present, and the anxieties of the day, and the week, just start to dissipate.”

Cold temperatures also trigger the production of proteins, he notes, “and proteins are typically positive for the body. They have a purpose: to remove toxins, distribute nutrients, to stimulate the immune system.” A recent study out of Cambridge University found that regular cold-water swimmers had a cold-shock protein in their blood known as RBM3, which is believed to help slow the onset of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases by protecting against brain-cell loss.

Cold immersion also releases a cascade of hormones that can have a lasting positive effect. In Pantzar’s first book on the subject, The Finnish Way, she chatted with professor Hannu Rintamäki of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health about the physiological effects of swimming in the winter months. “A dip of about 30 seconds to one minute in water that’s on average about 4 degrees Celsius causes what’s known as a ‘hormone storm,’ as many of the so-called happy hormones are pushed into action,” Rintamäki told her. By happy hormones, he’s referring to endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers; serotonin, widely thought to maintain mood balance; dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure centres and also regulates movement and emotional response; and oxytocin, aka the love hormone.

There aren’t yet definitive studies on the effects of cold-water dips (Whitley points out that there isn’t a “cold-water swimming industry” to fund them as heartily as, say, studies on pharmaceuticals), but for women, anecdotal evidence suggests that menopausal side effects like hot flashes, anxiety and sleeplessness can subside with regular cold-water dipping.

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At Jack Darling Memorial Park, Delphine Adenot Owusu leads her friend Carol Cofre into
Lake Ontario for her first-ever dip. First-time swimmers (and even regulars) should always swim
with a buddy—and wearing a hat helps preserve body heat as you enter the water.

Goerzen says her own hot flashes decreased once she started a regular dipping practice. And she has used her cold plunges as an opportunity to confront another side effect of perimenopause: weight gain. “I’d gone into early perimenopause and my body changed quite a bit, very quickly,” she says. “I knew there was some internalized fatphobia still living there, and so one of the ways I decided to explore it was to see myself on video.” She recorded herself going in and out of the water as a way to get more comfortable with her appearance, but she also saw a connection with the cold-water-swimming goal of overcoming discomfort. “It isn’t about taking the struggle away, it’s about learning how to struggle,” she says. “I can be uncomfortable, and I can be okay.”

And while Goerzen’s cold ocean dips have boosted her mood and reduced her anxiety, they’ve also transformed her outlook once she’s out of the water. “Our brains are wired for negativity bias—we’re wired to look for all the things we suck at, all the ways we’re doing wrong,” she says. “But this practice of going for a dip in the ocean—it’s a heavy dose of evidence that I can do difficult things. That I can set my mind to something and do it.”

Next: The Health Benefits of Open-Water Swimming

Originally Published in Best Health Canada