One of the things I love most about where I live is that I can walk to the beach. Granted, I live in Canada… on Vancouver Island… so much of the year the water is ~8 degrees celsius (or colder). But when we moved here in November of 2020, I decided that I would go to the beach as many mornings per week as I could muster. And after a few weeks of walking along the shore and staring out at the water, I started joining some friendly folks who going in the water for a plunge.
I immediately was hooked.
Caveat time: Yes, I grew up playing outside in Edmonton winters (often -40c), I also used to take ice baths when I was training hard for races, and I have always preferred cool showers to hot ones (you will very rarely find me in a hot tub) but this is a whole new level of cold exposure.
At first I stayed in the water for 3 minutes, then 5, then 10 and eventually I stopped paying attention to the time and just stayed as long as felt good. Bobbling around in the water, watching the wild life, listening to the waves, and chatting quietly with my new friends.
When I posted that I was doing this on Social Media (I believe it was on Instagram, because without photos, who would believe me) I immediately started getting questions about why I would do this! Was it for longevity? To defeat chronic inflammation? To lose weight? To boost my immune system?
And you know what, people seemed upset when I said: “I just like it.”
Cold Exposure Science
Sure I have read the articles full of fantastical claims and the scientific studies that often contradict each other – and am happy that (as Discover magazine reports):
- One study tracked 49 Finnish winter swimmers who dipped in cold water an average of four times per week. After four months, they reported a significant decrease in tension and fatigue, as well as an improvement in mood and memory compared to 33 non-swimmers.
- Researchers also followed 85 Germans who regularly participated in cold water swims and found they contracted 40 percent fewer upper respiratory infections than a control group.
- A recent case study reported that a woman who had suffered from severe depression for eight years was able to stop taking antidepressant medication after swimming in cold water once a week improved her mood. Even cold showers have been shown to have antidepressant effects.
- Research now underway in the UK has found cold water swimmers also produce a protein that protects the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia.
The authors of a study in Endocrine Society suggest that recruiting and activating BAT (brown adipose tissue or brown fat) by manipulating temperature may be a promising therapeutic strategy in obesity and diabetes treatment.
A recent paper on The Scandinavian winter-swimming culture published in Cell Reports Medicine suggest that we only need to do 11 minutes of cold water immersion a week to get a significant increase in resting metabolism. The authors suggest that by doing cold exposure 2-3 times per week for 3-4 minutes… well, here is their summary:
In conclusion, our data underscore that BAT in adult humans is part of the collective human body temperature regulation system in collaboration with skeletal muscle and blood flow. Furthermore, our study raises the idea that BAT could be involved in regulating sleeping patterns in humans, which should be interesting to investigate in future studies. Finally, our findings motivate investigations of winter swimming as a lifestyle intervention for increased energy expenditure in obese subjects as a potential weight loss strategy.
It’s true that using cold temperatures for medical purposes is taken seriously in countries all over the world. Whole-body cryotherapy was developed in Japan to treat pain and inflammation and people in Scandinavia and Russia are passionate about winter swimming having health benefits.
There are all sorts of stories told about the South Korean women who free dive for sea urchins and how they have become super human from spend so long in icy waters in small cotton bathing suits (they discarded the white cotton bathing suits in the early 1970s for the black rubber wetsuits they wear today).
But honestly, none of that is why I plunge into the pretty darn cold waters (most of the year, it does warm up temporarily in mid-summer). I do it, again, not because I am looking for the fountain of youth but because I just like how it makes me feel.
Interestingly, the temperature-regulation research of Stanford biologists H. Craig Heller and Dennis Grahn has led to a device that rapidly cools body temperature, greatly improves exercise recovery, and could help explain why muscles get tired. The researchers even go as far as to say “the device provides better results than performance-enhancing drugs.” Which is a bold but intriguing statement from actual scientists (not people who simply “do their research” using Google.
Dr. Heller’s research suggests that there are three areas of our body (called glabrous skin: the bottoms of feet, palms and face) that can remove or bring heat into the body faster than anywhere else. Properly cooling these areas can allow people to perform 200-600% more volume and repetitions of resistance exercises at the same weight loads, or to run, cycle or swim significantly further than they could at regular temperatures.
The theory is that when we do something like let’s say a dumbbell curl, our whole body gets warm but the muscle being used gets really warm. And part of the fatigue we feel in that muscle is from it getting overheated (even if we aren’t necessarily sweating). So, by cooling the body, you mitigate that overheating and you can do more work before fatigue.
So my logic is that if I start my day with a cool dip, then hit the gym, I am starting from a lower body temp and therefore allowing myself to workout harder, without immediately overheating my muscles. Cool, right? Haha!
Dr. Heller also suggest that we can use directed cooling of that same glabrous skin to significantly enhance recovery times from exercise. But for me, that would require running down to the beach and back during my workout to cool between sets… which seems unreasonable.
I usually go for a walk along the beach first. While I walk I do some breathing exercises that I learned to manage my anxiety and depression. Generally, I keep it simple and just breathe in for four steps, hold for four steps, exhale for four, and rest for four.
Then after about 1km of walking, I strip off my clothes (down to my trunks) and walk into the ocean. I have learned not to hesitate. Keep walking! And once the water hits my junk, I turn around and launch myself backward into the water.
Once I am neck deep in the water, I spend some time taking in my surroundings. I try to make my eyes focus on something very far away (like tress on Saysutshun island or details on the BC Ferries). I look for birds in the sky and on the water. I listen to the waves. I generally face east, toward the sunrise (which also happens to be the where the sea is on this side of the island) and away from the buildings and houses.
Once I have run out of time or just feel like I have had enough, I walk back onto the beach, towel off (a little, not fully) and walk home to usually do my morning workout (which undeniably helps me warm up and stop shivering) and, as I already highlighted, might help me exercise harder with less fatigue. But it also might not. And that is ok.
In the end, there is nothing completely scientific about what I am doing and it isn’t necessarily any type of biohack.
I tried it – I liked it – I kept doing it. And eventually found some interesting science to back me up.
If I get some benefit from it (aside from feeling good) that is great – but the smile I have on my face as I walk home, shivering, is worth it.
My favourite thing is when someone stops me to ask how the water is while I am walking with my towel wrapped around my shoulders. I revel in saying “It’s cold… but great!” I think they are surprised that I am so honest. I think they expect me to say “not that bad” or something more macho.
But I am there for the cold… so, why lie? My rosy pink belly skin would give me away every time anyway.