Surprising Benefits of Winter Swimming, Ice Baths & Cold Therapy

Surprising Benefits of Winter Swimming, Ice Baths & Cold Therapy

Surprising Benefits of Winter Swimming, Ice Baths & Cold Therapy

Ice baths, cold-water showers and winter swimming are becoming common topics in more and more households. Whether you are already in the cold water three times a week or in the sauna looking at the frozen people while thinking about whether it should be you, this article will give you the ins and outs of winter swimming, ice baths and cold water therapy. What happens when our bodies meet with ice-cold water? How does it affect our physical and mental health and the most important steps to take to ensure a safe winter swimming experience.

In Scandinavia, winter swimming is very common. As there are around 90 winter swimming clubs with more than 25000 members, you are bound to bump into keen winter swimmers of all ages when travelling to and around Scandinavia. Now many people around the world are following suit, and for good reasons. 

Cold Water Therapy:

Winter swimming is a form of cold water therapy. In this category, you also find Ice baths and cold water showers. This article is relevant to all types of cold water therapies. Cold water therapy can positively affect our physical and mental health, though a deeper look at the research suggests it is not for all. Let’s look at what happens when we lower our bodies into cold water 

Water Therapy:

It’s worth adding, the benefits of cold water immersion before going more in-depth. In general being around and in moving water offers lots of benefits. Whether it’s cold, warm, salty, steamy, copper bath, snowboarding, skiing, snow, ice, hydrotherapy, lakes, seas, waterfalls, or hot pools, water in all its shapes just works wonders, and each of the above mentioned offers different benefits. Staying hydrated gives us energy and supports good brain health. Drinking water, whether it’s lemon water, warm water, mineral water or infused water, is just great! So just to say, water is amazing and contributes to our overall physical and mental health already. A big shout out and gratitude to this epic and life depending element!

Community Feeling:

Another important aspect of winter swimming not to be overlooked is the fact that it’s most often practised in clubs or in groups, giving it a real in-person, live social aspect. Despite being in a digital connected world more and more people are feeling lonely. Loneliness is one of the leading causes of depression. Depression is serious as it can lead to lifelong sadness, lack of purpose and no joy. The happier we are is directly linked to the more purpose we feel, and plays a major role in our lifespan. Socialising feels more natural to some of us, though it’s important to all of us! Introverted or extroverted, we all need contact, hugs, love, encouragement and support from others. Winter swimmers are coming together to do something they enjoy, sharing moments, creating memories, smiling, laughing and connecting, combating depression.

Bring In Nature: 

Last, but not least, winter swimming is done outside in nature, offering yet another great benefit. Connecting with nature, being outside in the fresh air, feeling the wind and sun on your skin. Even in the dark seasons, getting outside is a huge game changer and a way to combat winter depression. Looking forward to something winter has to offer, can really shift our perspective on the cold season. 

Breath and Mindfulness:

Speaking of fresh air brings us to another life depending part of our existence: The Breath. Winter swimmers practise or learn over time to take control of their breath. Long deep breaths, when the body fights for short panic breaths, as the body begins to cool. Long exhales activates the body's "rest and digest" relaxation response. Winter swimmers are essentially doing breath work, drawing on the benefits of pranayama or breath work. This skill can then naturally be incorporated into other areas of our life where we encounter stress or pressure. So with that said, let’s take a look at what happens when we lower ourselves into the cold water.

What Happens When the Body Meets with the Cold Water: 

Winter swimming, ice baths and cold showers are forms of shock therapy. As our body hits the cold water, the body’s alarm system (the fight and flight mode) is activated. Cold water cools the body down and that can be life-threatening to the body, which is why its alarms go off, trying to protect itself. As we intentionally do this we know that we are not in a life-threatening situation, so we can keep the mind calm and the breath slow and deep (this comes with practice). By doing this we are telling our body that we got this, we are safe and can reap the benefits of momentarily activating fight and flight mode. Scientists call this hormesis (an adaptive response of cells and organisms to moderate usually intermittent stress).

Fight and flight mode increases the production of two hormones, one called norepinephrine and the other named epinephrine. These two hormones signal to your body to increase heart rate, up the production and secretion of Adrenalin and turn on survival mode. The way your body moves, breathes, circulates blood and even metabolism is affected. Our senses heighten, we hyperventilate and our blood pressure raise. To ensure enough energy for our body to make quick and efficient decisions glucose and fats are released into the bloodstream. We are literally turning on our body's survival mode.

Survival mode isn’t a state we want to be in for longer periods, though deliberately activating this mode momentarily, has positive effects on our body and mind. So knowing what happens to our body when being submerged in cold water, let's explore the benefits of this therapy.

Benefits of Winter Swimming, Ice Baths and Cold Water Exposure:


The initial shock gives the body a feel-good experience, a so-to-speak "high" this is due to a surge of beta-endorphine homoens in the brain providing pain relief and giving a sense of euphoria.

Less Reactive to Stress:

Cross-Adaptation refers to becoming strong, calm or skilled in managing one vulnerability drawing that strength, calm or skill into different, non-related vulnerabilities. In other words, making you less reactive to the stress carried onto the body from being exposed to cold water can make you less reactive to stress carried onto your body and mind from other areas of your life (from work, relationships and so forth).

Improves Drive and Motivation:

Boost mood improves energy and attention span. As epinephrine and norepinephrine are produced in the body during cold-water exposure, a powerful and sudden amount of dopamine is released in the body as well. Dopamine is what gives us the feeling of drive and motivation and gives our mood a boost, and our energy and attention spans improve. 

Improves Metabolic Health:

Norepinephrine switches on genes that stimulate mitochondria production in our fat tissue. Fat tissue with high levels of Mitochondria is more metabolic active meaning it burns energy at a faster rate.

Improves Longevity:

Optimising our metabolic health leads to better blood sugar control, lower cholesterol levels and better body fat distribution. Further, better metabolic health increases longevity genes (SIRT1 and cold-shock proteins) that turn on antioxidant production, supporting our immunity and lowering the risk of age-related diseases.

Building Willpower:

Another great benefit from winter swimming, ice baths and cold showers is the fact that you get to master your mind, rather than the mind mastering you. I am pretty sure there will not be a single time your mind is screaming "YES YES YES get me into that freezing water". But by you deciding and doing it, you are taking control of your mind, body and health!  

Top 23 Benefits of Winter Swimming, Ice Bath and Cold-Water Exposure:

  1. Being in Nature: Being outdoors and connecting with nature has a proven, positive impact on mental wellbeing
  2. Exercise: Moving the body proves great for both physical health and mental health
  3. Increase Drive and Motivation
  4. Boost Mood and Energy Levels 
  5. Improves Attention Span 
  6. Strengthens Willpower 
  7. Increase Metabolic Rates in Fat Tissue 
  8. Supports Longevity and Health Span 
  9. Becoming Less Reactive to Stress
  10. Improves Metabolic Health
  11. Better Blood Sugar Control
  12. Lower Cholesterol Levels
  13. Better Body Fat Distribution
  14. Supporting Our Immune System
  15. Lowering the Risk of Age-Related Diseases.
  16. Fostering a Sense of Community
  17. Prime You to Better Deal With Anxiety, Stress and Depression
  18. Reducing Stress
  19. Supports Healing From Depression 
  20. Reduces Stress
  21. Prevents Depression
  22. Boost Self Esteem
  23. Mental Resilience

Muscle Building and Cold Water Exposure:

Immediate exposure to cold water after HIIT improves muscle power and performance and reduces inflammation and soreness though the same benefits do not count when wanting to build muscle mass. Are you looking to build muscle mass, cold water exposure up to four hours after working out will hinder muscle mass. Make sure you separate those two practices (waiting 4 hours+ after your workout) if the goal is to build muscle mass.

Winter Swimming, Ice Bath, Cold Water Showers and Women Health

Less is known about the effects of cold-water exposure on women. Currently, studies point to the fact that much cold-water exposure can be detrimental to women's hormonal health. 

Is Winter Swimming For All? Check-in with your GP or health advisor before starting winter bathing. 

10 Tips for Winter Swimming & Ice-Baths: 

  1. Find a safe spot: Make sure you can reach the bottom or a ladder. Ensure you can easily and safely exit the water. Ensure there's no current.
  2. Swim together: Being in cold water alone can be very dangerous. Always swim together, never swim alone.
  3. Keep your head above the water.
  4. Keep Feet warm: Bring swimming shoes or shoes to slip on when you get out of the water. 
  5. Getting dressed and warm: Get your upper body warm first, that way you warm up quicker. Your body is still cooling down up til 30 minutes after the exposure.
  6. Begin in the summer: If new to winter bathing, begin in late summer and continue as the temperature of the water drops.
  7. Take your time when entering the water, never head dive in!
  8. Sauna: Swim somewhere where you can access a sauna afterwards, it feels great to get warm again.
  9. Check-in with your GP and your health advisor.
  10. Feel, breathe, notice and keep smart: Despite all the benefits, or whatever your friend might say you must and mustn't do, always listen in to yourself, your body and your mind. We are all different and there's not one fit all recipe for life.

Cold Water Therapies:

Both ice baths and winter swimming are practices where your body is fully submerged in cold water up to your neck (head above water) whereas a cold shower is just letting the cold water run over your body.

How Long Do I Need To Stay In The Water:

The colder the water is, the less time you need to stay in. Work your way up to 60-120 seconds. Maximum of 3 minutes in water temperature 1-2 degrees celsius. Rather than working on staying in longer in one go, work on your weekly amount of time spent in the cold water (so if you had 3 ice baths during the week, one you were submerged for 1 minute, the next for 2 and the third for 1.5 minutes, your weekly duration will be 4.5 minutes).

According to Dr Huberman, the minimal effective dose on a weekly basis is 11 minutes. It is up to you how many ice baths you want to reach the 11 minutes. Huberman recommends two to four sessions a week with each session being between two and six minutes.

How Do I Begin:

If you are new to cold water therapy, go easy. Practice by swimming outdoors in summer and keep it going until winter, that way you let your body gets used to the cold water slowly. You can also practice at home by filling up a bathtub. Again ease your way into the practice. Begin with mildly cold. Bath after bath allow the water to be slightly cooler than the previous one. When it is as cold as you can get it, experiment with adding ice to it.

The Ideal Temperature:

The goal is to be uncomfortably cold. There is not a set temperature here, it is individual to you (and will change throughout your practice). Go for a temperature where you have to push through. Your brain will be wanting you to get out.

Stay cool and stay together, Remember Cold-Water therapy is a type of shock therapy, it is essential to have someone by your side, should you faint or cramp or need help to get out. :)

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