Is getting cold good for health?



S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
@ActiveLouise
Ask Louise


16 March 2021

Is getting cold good for health?

Research shows that exposure to cold temperatures, such as in open water swimming, could be good for our health. It is thought to benefit immune and cardiovascular health, as well as mood. It has also been linked to a reduced risk of dementia. If you are interested in the likes of open water swimming for improved health, make sure to speak to someone already involved in the sport before trying it yourself.

How do cold temperatures benefit health?

Wim Hof is a Dutch athlete, known for his ability to practise extreme activities in very cold temperatures. Amongst other accomplishments, Hof has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts and once stood in a container of ice for 112 minutes!1

Hof advocates the benefits of such activities and, indeed, research has shown that cold temperatures could benefit several areas of our health, such as:

  1. Immune function
  2. Mood
  3. Cardiovascular
  4. Brain

Now, the kind of activities practised by Wim Hof are not something for the untrained individual to go trying out; however, activities like open water swimming are increasingly popular so I thought it'd be interesting to take a closer look at the benefits of this.

1. Immune health

There is some evidence to show that the cold could be beneficial for the immune system.

Cold water swimming, for example, could result in fewer bouts of illness as well as milder symptoms. In one study, there were 40% fewer respiratory tract infections in winter swimmers compared to a control group.2

Exposure to cold water is an extremely stressful experience for the body and stress hormones are released in response. It is thought that this short-term stress better prepares the immune system to fight infections.3

2. Mood

Mental health is another area that's said to benefit from the cold. Looking again at cold water swimming, this has been seen to have benefits for sufferers of depression and anxiety.4, 5

In another study, short cold showers (preceded by 5 minutes of gradual adaptation to the activity) performed once or twice daily for a period of several weeks to several months were also found to be beneficial for mood.6 This is linked to the fact that the cold triggers the sympathetic nervous system, leading to the release of adrenaline and beta-endorphins. Feelings of elation are also connected to the fact that cold receptors line the skin and this sends strong electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain. This, it was shown, helped to reduce symptoms of depression.


3. Cardiovascular health

Cold water swimming also seems to have a positive impact on cardiovascular risk factors such as cholesterol7 and blood pressure.8

The activity boosts circulation because the cold water triggers a rush of blood to the organs, thus making the heart work a touch harder. Blood is pumped through the capillaries, arteries and veins, helping to improve circulation.

4. Brain health

People who swim regularly in cold water are less likely to develop dementia, according to recent research. The activity is thought to stimulate the release of a protein that could halt or prevent the condition.9 Although this research is very much in the early stages, the results are exciting nonetheless.

Swimming in open water safely

If the benefits of cold-water swimming intrigue you, please speak to a local club or someone already involved in the sport to get the latest advice on trying it out yourself. Do not try open water swimming alone or prior to receiving this advice. Swim England can provide more advice on the sport.

References

1 https://www.wimhofmethod.com/iceman-wim-hof 

2 https://academic.oup.com/qjmed/article/92/4/193/1586500 
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7730683/ 
4 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12078959/ 
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30131418/ 
6 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17993252/ 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26267514/ 
https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0306456599000595 
9 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-54531075 

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