Can a dip in cold water lift your mood?

Research suggests chillin’ out in cold water has a positive effect on our mental health.

There’s a buzz around cold water swimming. Taking a dip in a river, lake, outdoor lido, or sea has become popular over the last few years. According to Outdoor Swimmer Magazine, the Active Lives Survey published by Sport England reported over four million people swam outdoors between 2017-18. The Brits are becoming hooked as we begin to discover what Nordic folk have known for years.

Advocates of cold water swimming report many health benefits, especially an elevated mood. Scientists are beginning to explore whether the claims stack up and investigate the possibility of using cold water swimming as a treatment for depression.

The British Medical Journal presented the first case report on the mental health benefits of cold-water swimming for depression. A twenty-four-year-old woman suffering from treatment-resistant depression trialled a weekly swim in cold water. Each week the woman’s mood improved, and she was able to reduce her dose of antidepressants slowly. After four months, all medication stopped. A year later, the woman was still swimming and prescription free.

In another study, Heather Massey from the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science at Portsmouth University in the UK, invited sixty-one novice swimmers to participate in a ten week introductory outdoor swimming course. Over the ten weeks, researchers monitored aspects of psychological wellbeing using various questionnaires.

The results published in the journal Lifestyle Medicine found cold-water swimming reduced negative emotions such as tension, fatigue, anger, depression and confusion. Positive emotions, such as self-esteem related feelings and vigour, increased over the ten weeks.

‘This study shows pool and outdoor swimming acutely reduces negative and increases positive mood; it also provides evidence of a longer-term reduction in negative mood between progressive sea swimming sessions, in comparison to a control group who were inactive on the beach”, wrote lead author Heather Massey.

How does it work?

Scientists speculate that cold water triggers a stress response, and with regular exposure, the body adapts and learns to be less reactive to the stress of the cold water and other kinds of daily stresses.

Lower reactivity to stressful events means the body releases fewer stress hormones lowering levels of inflammation, which benefit the immune system. High levels of inflammation in the body are associated with depression and chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Other aspects of cold-water swimming may also boost moods, such as the feeling of euphoria and achievement people experience after the swim and the social aspect of being part of a community of swimmers. Also, simply being in a natural environment can lift the mood. 

If you are curious and want to give cold water a go, it’s essential to prepare well as there are risks as well as rewards.

Check with your GP if you have a history of cardiac problems, high blood pressure, asthma or pregnant before you start.

Start slowly in the warmer months to allow the body to adapt before the colder winter months.

Don’t jump into water below 15 degrees centigrade because the initial shock affects breathing.

Don’t swim in cold water alone.

Warm up with hot drinks after the swim.

Join one of the many cold-water swimming groups around the UK.

Sport England have more information on how to get started

References

Massey.H., Kandala.N., Davis.C., Harper.M., Gorczynsta.P., Denton.H. 2020. Mood and well-being of novice open water swimmers and control during an introductory outdoor swimming programme: A feasibility study. Lifestyle Medicine, 1.e12: DOI:10.1002/lim2.12.

Van-Tullekan., Tipton.M., Massey.H., and Harper.C.M. (2018). Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder. BMJ case reports. DOI: 10.1136/bcr-2018-225007

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