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Dr Mark Harper Discusses The Health Benefits Of Cold Water Swimming

Posted by Ross Montandon

Part 2 of our Cold Water Swimming series with Dr Mark Harper. In this article, he shares some of the physical and mental health benefits for cold water swimming with us. Along with that all too familiar diagnosis of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) after a long year and the rise of the darker months, struggles with mental health are known to creep up on us. For some of use, this slow transition back to more freedom could also be a catalyst for us to feel anxious or agitated. 

Cold water swimming can help enhance achievement and fulfilment, with even something as simple as taking a quick dip in chilly waters having a positive impact on our mental health. This has undoubtedly played a major role in the ever-increasing popularity of cold water swimming up and down the country. 

The Feel Good Factor

At the simplest level, for me, it’s because I just feel so good afterwards. This is something I noticed after my first swim around Brighton’s Palace Pier nearly 18 years ago and it’s what kept me going back beyond the two weeks I’d planned whilst the pool was shut for its summer holidays.

The great thing is that it not only feels good, it actually IS good. It has been pointed out that all you need to become ill in our modern world is to follow ordinary patterns of diet and lifestyle.  A modern lifestyle of too much (processed) food, desk work, binge drinking and stress leads to conditions including (but not only) obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and heart attacks. It’s interesting that there’s one process that links them all together – inflammation.

Inflammation is an important physiological process essential to health.  It’s the body’s primary defence and repair system but it needs to be a carefully controlled response.  An uncontrolled inflammatory response is what’s behind anaphylactic reactions. The trouble is that modern lifestyles tend to promote inflammation. This means that we are constantly in an unhealthy zone.

What we need is something that attenuates that response and keeps us in the healthy zone.  This is where cold water swimming comes in.  Even better, it works on two levels. First, by becoming adapted to the cold water this only takes 4-6 swims in water of 20˚C or less both our baseline and peak levels of inflammation go down so we spend more time in the healthy zone and less time in the unhealthy zone.

Second, when you put your face in cold water, the vagus nerve is stimulated. This stimulates the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest' nervous system and one of the consequences of this is reduced levels of inflammation in the body.

One note of caution, more is not necessarily better.  Becoming hypothermic is always bad for you. The good thing is when it is as cold as it is now, all that’s needed to reap the benefits is a quick in and out.  If you can bear to put your face in, that’s even better.

The Community within Cold Water Swimming

Not only is inflammation linked to physical illness, it’s also linked to mental health.  In fact, it was discovered that there was a link between depression and inflammation that lead to my research into using open-water swimming as a treatment for anxiety and depression. As we know from many studies in regards to mental health and exercise creating a support network to help ease the strain of depression or anxiety. The outdoor swimming community is thriving and the groups will routinely meet throughout the year to catch up be sociable and create friendships. The run and dip popularity usually saved for New Years Day and Boxing Day mass events is now a common occurrence. Knowing that you've committed to meeting a group certainly encourages you to take the plunge a little encouragement goes a long way

Thanks to Joanna Shimwell and Amazed by light for the photos 

Mark Harper is a member of The Outdoor Swimming Society team, for more information on managing cold, check out a range of blog content on cold water swimming.