How Does Ice Swimming Affect the Body?


Participating in the local polar bear plunge is a point of pride for many swimmers. Working through the initial chill alongside other dedicated cold-water enthusiasts is a rush and a great way to get active.

Many people will tell you that there are health benefits to be had from immersion in icy water, but how does cold-water swimming actually affect you? The answer is, “it’s complicated.”

Some frightful things can happen when you jump in a lake or pool that’s much colder than you’re accustomed to, but there are also some potential wins. Let’s start with the activity itself.

What Constitutes Ice Swimming?

If you’re the type that won’t get into the pool unless it’s 84 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re probably not reading this anyway. The fact is that some people enjoy cold water and have for centuries.

You certainly shouldn’t go jumping into near-freezing water and expect good results, though. Much like the tragic passengers of the Titanic, you’d be lucky not to die of hypothermia.

Most cold-water swims take place in water that’s just-below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s enough to give you a brain freeze, but not so chilly that you can’t swim. So for those crazy folks who claim they’ve gotten used to it, they probably have. It takes a few years, but you can become acclimated to swimming in waters that would give most people the shivers.

Tapping Into the Cold

Swimming and the natural buoyancy of the human body are used in many exercise and physical therapy programs. As a popular low-impact workout that can stretch muscles and soothe aching joints, swimming is one of the most accessible sports for the elderly and those working to recover from injuries.

However, most of the therapeutic work you’ve probably seen doesn’t take place in an ice bath. Are patients missing out? In some sense, they are. In fact, the positive effects of cold water swimming might be more effective for treating the psyche than the body.

For example, the release of endorphins and other hormones that takes place during cold-water immersion can help people recover from depression. Patients with chronic pain have reported improvement after taking up an ice swimming habit.

More Than Just a High

There are more direct physical effects of cold-water swimming, too. The psychological boost is only one of six major health benefits that have been connected to cold-water swimming. Many of them make a lot of sense when you consider the jolt that comes with jumping into a frigid body of water.

Because your body has to expend more energy to function in the cold environment, you’ll burn more calories during a cold-water swim. Perhaps polar bear swimming is a good hobby for those trying to lose weight. Just keep in mind that things might begin to feel colder as that insulative layer of fat melts away. On that point, it’s often a good idea to double up a swim cap since the head is one of the main sources of heat leakage.

That aside, circulation improves in people who swim in cold water. You’ve probably noticed the flushed response of your skin after you dip a toe or your entire body into a frigid body of water. At a deeper level, the same effect forces new blood into capillaries and vessels, improving blood flow, particularly in elderly people.

Swimming in cold water has been associated with increased libido as well. Exposure to cold water increases the body’s production of sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen. As a result, it helps people feel stronger and more confident.

Ice swimming also boosts immunity. Production of white blood cells increases when your body detects the changing conditions around it. All those people at the polar bear plunge aren’t just pretending to feel that vigorous — they really are. If you don’t believe us, check out the Harvard Medical School study where this concept was verified.

Swim Safely

It’s crucial to approach ice swimming with a certain degree of caution. Like many methods that people use to improve their health, swimming in icy water requires some tact. We are, after all, land mammals by nature.

You should always swim with others and have a plan in case of an emergency if you’re planning on ice swimming. Hypothermia is a real risk, and there are other issues like cold incapacitation, which causes you to feel strong for a short time before losing the ability to swim. Cold water can be dangerous and requires a healthy dose of preparation.

Ultimately, ice swimming is a wonderful tool for wellness when used properly. The physical and mental benefits are real, and it’s one of the few remedies that’s truly natural. Should you do it? If there’s a local group where you can try it out, speak to your doctor and consider attending the event. You might just find you like it.