It may be the middle of winter, but I would give anything to swim in Lake Michigan right now. Yes, even if it’s freezing. I fell in love with open-water swimming toward the end of last summer after an exceptionally cruel ghosting experience.
Open-water swimming was a way for me to get away from my thoughts, get out of my head, and put down my phone. It was a way for me to immerse myself in Mother Nature, even if the water was starting to get cold. It was also another way where I felt exceptionally closer to God.
There’s definitely something to be said about the physical, mental, emotional, and I would even dare say spiritual benefits of swimming — but then you add in the cold temperatures and we just upped the ante on all of the benefits.
I enjoyed swimming in the cold Lake Michigan water because, as weird as this sounds, it physically hurt. Not the entire time — just at first — but it was that physical pain that actually got my mind off of being ghosted and focused on something else, even if for that short while.
It was only later when I started doing some recon and research of my own that I realized I was onto something here, which subsequently led to the inspiration for this article.
If you’re a fan of contrasting showers and are considering swimming in ice water, grab your swimsuit and swim cap because here are some of the benefits of cold water swimming.
A word of caution: It’s advised to not swim in water colder than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Always use the proper equipment, gear, and layers, take precautions, and listen to your body. We don’t want anyone getting hypothermia here.
Benefits of cold water swimming
1. Bolsters antioxidants
There’s evidence to suggest that cold water swimming can boost antioxidants, which are essential for protecting organs and DNA shares, says Michael Njunge, MD, founder of MichaelNKW.com.
The way this is thought to happen is that cold water swimming actually produces damaging oxygen molecules — we call these “free radicals.” These act as a stress signal and cause your body to increase the production of antioxidants. This type of health response (increased antioxidants) in response to stress (free radicals from cold swimming) is known as hormetic adaptation.
2. Boosts your immune system
One of the benefits of cold water swimming is it boosts your immune system and can help reduce the risk of infections. Swimming in ice water helps increase white blood cells because the body is forced to react to changing conditions and, over time, your body becomes even more agile at activating its natural defense system.
3. Decreases stress
Another benefit of cold water swimming is that it decreases stress. As noted by U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS), virtually any type of exercise, including swimming, releases endorphins, the hormones responsible for the feelings of a “runner’s high” that swimmers also experience after an intense workout.
Cold water can release these sensations faster and with less intense swimming than in regular water. It’s important to note that even swimming in warm water can release these same feelings of euphoria, but if you can access them more quickly in cold water, then why not?
4. Gives you a natural high
Another benefit of cold water swimming is that it gives you a natural high by activating endorphins. Endorphins are hormones produced by the brain and nervous system that can make us feel good during activities like exercise and sex.
Cold water swimming is a form of exercise, and exercise has been proven to treat depression. Cold water swimming brings us close to the pain barrier — and there are endorphins that are specifically released when we’re in pain to help us cope with it, which totally explains why cold water swimming was such a relief to me when I was emotionally and mentally distraught.
5. Improves your circulation
According to the USMS, exercise, like swimming, helps keep your blood moving, which is great for a number of aspects of overall health. When circulation improves, it boosts your body’s ability to move oxygen and nutrients to cells that need them and to remove waste those cells produce to keep things running optimally.
When it comes to your immune system, improved circulation also delivers nutrients to your bone marrow, which is your immune system headquarters. Efficient circulation also helps remove waste, which can also reduce inflammation and help your immune system do all of its important work.
Cold water swimming, in particular, flushes your arteries, capillaries, and veins as it forces blood to the surface and helps to warm your extremities. Plus, repeated exposure to the cold helps us adapt to the cold.
6. Increases libido
As if you needed another reason to get frisky, just partake in some swimming in ice water. A dip in some cold water boosts estrogen and testosterone production, adding an edge to libido. An increased libido may cause more confidence, enhanced mood, and higher self-esteem. Cold water swimming, anyone?
7. Reduces chronic pain and soreness
Studies suggest that cold water immersion (CWI) can reduce post-workout soreness and fatigue, and cold therapy gives a short-term improvement in chronic pain from inflammatory disorders, explains Njunge.
The reason cold is thought to help with post-workout soreness and pain from chronic inflammatory conditions is that cold exposure (water/air/ice) has the effect of tightening blood vessels to reduce blood flow to an area. Less blood flow to an injured/sore muscle or joint means less inflammatory response and swelling.
Also, cold has been shown to directly reduce nerve firing and effectively numb pain. This is why it’s common advice to ice an injury to reduce pain and swelling. Cold water swimming has this same effect across the whole body.
The next time you want to go for a swim, consider swimming in ice water. There are some pretty stellar benefits to swimming in cold water, so grab your swim cap and let’s take a dip in Lake Michigan. Who’s with me?