It’s bleak midwinter and I’m perched on the edge of a wooden dock, toes curled over the ledge in a vice-like grip.
The water below me is 11ºC, which doesn’t appear to bother the ducks that are sailing past, preening themselves in the morning mist. Around me, a few other regulars are making their slow descent into the grey-green pond. I take a deep breath, rise onto my tiptoes, and dive.
For 10 years, since my early twenties, I have been doing some version of the routine above all year round in ponds, lakes, lidos, rivers and the sea. But in the last two years, and in particular the last 12 months since COVID-19 altered the fabric of our world, I have noticed that this small thing that a dedicated cohort used to do has become one of the most talked about and talked-up forms of exercise since HIIT or Pilates hit the mainstream.
The reasons for this really wild renaissance, and all the mental and physical health benefits that come with it? Read on…
“Don’t you get hypothermia?” and, “You’ll catch your death out there” are probably the two most common responses you hear when you tell people that you get your shits and giggles by plunging into cold water. And while I’m definitely partial to a summer outdoor swim too, the truth is that it’s the coolness of the water that can have the greatest effect on your body and mind. It shocks you into sharp focus, the physiological equivalent of splashing your face with cold water when you’re upset.
Mike Tipton, professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth’s Extreme Environments Laboratory, has conducted a huge amount of research into the area of cold-water immersion. He explains that humans now “have developed such a degree of control over our thermal environment we don’t have any thermal challenges anymore”. And cold is one of the biggest challenges that you can expose the body to. “When you immerse yourself in cold water, stress hormones like adrenalin and noradrenalin pour out of you, your ventilation goes up, the body needs to activate that ‘fight or flight’ response. With that comes a sense of alertness. You feel alive – just like when you do anything that scares you. You feel like you have defeated death.”
But there’s more. It turns out swimming in cold water doesn’t just make you feel alive – it may also play a part in keeping you that way by helping to prevent or ease health conditions as diverse as depression, chronic pain, respiratory disease and even dementia. Back in October, scientists at the University of Cambridge revealed that long-term swimmers at the unheated Parliament Hill Lido in North London had raised levels of the cold-shock protein called RBM3, which could help build new connections in the brain – those that are lost in dementia sufferers.
What’s more, in one of his research papers, Tipton and his colleagues observed a 24-year-old woman who had previously suffered with major depressive disorder and anxiety manage to become medication-free after a year of regular cold-water swimming. Tipton is keen to stress that research in this area is still in its infancy, but he does explain that “a lot of the common conditions that we hear about are thought to have an inflammatory component. Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic pain… People who live longer tend to have lower inflammatory responses to things.”
He continues: “We know that if you go into cold water repeatedly, then the stress response decreases each time. We think that there might be some cross-adaptation of common pathways that can diminish the inflammatory response to other stressors.” Translation? Learning to cope with and overcome that physical reaction you have to cold water may help your body react to other stressors less extremely and with less inflammation. That’s why you’ll also hear cold-water swimmers tell you that they don’t catch common colds – their immune reaction may be “primed” by an appropriate level of cold stress. But, says Tipton, you shouldn’t stay in for too long. “If you go into cold water for a short period of time, it may well be something that provides a stress to the immune system that readies it to prepare for a future ‘attack’ – which is a good thing. But if you stay in too long, it can disturb and impair the system.”
Jennie Finnie, 32, started swimming at the Parliament Hill Lido to try and help her chronic back pain. “I was at the point where I would try anything to relieve my disc and sciatic pain issues. I started swimming daily, challenging myself to keep going for as long as I could. Within just a few months of swimming regularly in the cooling waters, my back inflammation had eased so much that the sciatic pain was almost gone,” she tells me.
Oh, and one last thing before we move on: women could actually be more suited to cold-water swimming than men. “Women have more subcutaneous fat than men – about 10% more body fat,” explains Tipton. This fat sits just under the skin, and it’s “the physiological overcoat for the body. It slows down the rate at which your body cools,” he adds. Basically, we have more insulation – handy for those sub-10ºC temperatures, I can tell you. It’s not only the physical effects that keep people taking the plunge. The social side of this sport is just as, if not more, important. Although the fitness industry may still be lagging behind in the inclusivity stakes, outdoor and wild swimming provide the community that many of us are craving.
“I started open-water swimming when I moved from London to the East Midlands for my husband’s job in 2015,” says Maria Papadopoulos, 32. “People are friendly, you can just wave and do your own thing or have a chat if the mood takes you.” When things changed due to the pandemic, she says she “started to really look forward to the social side, as at various points the only way you could see friends was to meet for exercise, and swimming became my sanity.”
It’s a sentiment so many of the people I spoke to for this feature echoed. Nat Hills, a 32-year-old intensive care doctor, credits swimming with getting her through one of her toughest years on record. “When I get in the water, everything stressful just melts away,” she says. “When the water is colder in autumn and winter, my body also feels physically reset after a swim, because everything in that moment is focused on the overwhelming feeling of cold and the post-swim euphoria it brings.”
She, too, loves the social side: “For me, it’s also about the swimming community I’m part of. It’s a wonderful but rare occurrence to find a bunch of adults fizzing with excitement like children. I’ve met so many wonderful friends from all walks of life and of all ages.”
She does, however, add one word of warning. “There are real risks with extremesof temperature, and certain specific things to be aware of (cold-water shock, and afterdrop, where your temperature continues falling afterwards and you can’t warm up) so it is best that people educate themselves and seek medical advice if they want to start cold-water swimming.”
When I asked Tipton about why more people have sought out cold water and wild swimming since COVID hit, he says that the impulse to swim in the cold has always been about “seeking a challenge that we have managed to engineer out of our life. Which has now been compounded by lockdown. We need more variance in our lives now.”
It’s something I relate to wholeheartedly. When outdoor pools and ponds closed around the country last year, I, like so many, felt the blow keenly. Swimming has always been a way that I deal with the anxiety that has plagued me since I was a child; the meditative strokes, physical exertion and cold thrill of it acting like a factory-reset button for my overly active brain. So last year, when the world became more anxiety-inducing than ever before, I craved the medicinal hit of the water even more. As I write this feature from my kitchen table, pools and lidos are still closed under government restrictions. By the time you read it, however, they will be open again, and hundreds of thousands of swimmers across the country – those old and new to the sport – will be back in their happy places. To me, they are as buoying as the water we wrap around ourselves each time we take the plunge.
How to go wild swimming safely
Thinking of getting into cold or open water? Read these tips from Swim England before you do so
Buddy up Go with a friend, ideally someone more experienced. Make sure you let someone know where you’re going before you go.
Temperature check All open-water swimming should take place in water at 11ºC or above, unless you are experienced and competent in cold water. Wetsuits can help with both temperature and buoyancy.
Take it slow Ease yourself into the water to avoid cold-water shock. Don’t stay in for too long (less than 10 minutes to begin with).
Plan your exit Particularly in open water, make sure you know how you’re going to get out before you get in. Consider any currents, the tidal flow and wind direction.
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