During the long pandemic winter in Trumansburg, New York, Sara Worden has found something to spice up her days by putting on red lipstick, dangly earrings, a bathing suit and an insulated jacket that covers her whole body and is easy to change in and out of. She then drives to a nearly frozen Lake Cayuga for a cold water swim.
“I literally shut down my laptop and I instantly drive down to the lake with upbeat dance music, and for me it’s just the best way to reset after a day of work,” Worden says.
In warmer weather, the 40-year-old hospice worker practices yoga and meditates on the lake shore every morning before jumping in for a swim. Without her outdoor routine, winter often takes its toll on her, both mentally and physically. This year, in the grips of a pandemic, she was proactive and sought out creative ways to keep herself healthy.
The Energetic Jolt of Cold-Water Swimming
Worden did research, and through her job, she connected with Jaimie Monahan, a competitive endurance and cold-water swimmer based in New York City. Monahan is also a Guinness World Record holder as the first person in history to complete an ice mile on all seven continents. Worden was inspired by Monahan, so in January she ran into the lake for a quick dip with a friend. The first time lasted only a couple of minutes. After a few weeks of getting acclimated, Worden now fully submerges herself up to her neck for as long as 10 minutes, up to three days a week, even on days when temperatures are below freezing.
“Having something exciting to look forward to that gives me an energetic jolt, brings me in community with other people and connects me to the beauty of nature has had an incredible benefit to my mental state,” Worden says.
Perhaps the greatest benefit for Worden is the sense of community with her fellow swimmers at a time when her regular social interactions have been minimized by the pandemic.
Popularity of a Polar Plunge
Worden is not the only one taking up what she calls “wintering” during the pandemic. She’s had over 20 people join her since she started, and it keeps growing. It’s well documented by the number of recent articles on the topic that cold water swimming is a booming trend across the U.S. — and the world. Countries like the U.K., Finland, Poland and Russia have long histories of cold-water swimming and polar plunges.
Other forms of cold treatment such as ice baths and cold showers are used among athletes to help with soreness and swelling, although there’s not much research behind its effectiveness. Even Van Gogh was reportedly prescribed cold baths when he was struggling with mental health.
Managing Stress With Stress
Vaibhav Diwadkar, professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan, studies the effects of cold exposure. In a 2019 study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, he and his collegue Otto Muzik, a professor of pediatrics and radiology also at Wayne State University, summarized a large collection of evidence to suggest that there’s a relationship between stressing your body with cold exposure and your brain’s response to stress.
According to Diwadkar, while science has long focused on the destructive nature of stress, more emerging research shows that willfully stressing your mind and body in a controlled way helps train your system to better handle stress. He believes exposure to controlled stress releases neurochemicals in the brain that may be beneficial.
Worden says that cold water swimming helped her work on home repairs more easefully. For example, when she had ice and snow on her roof, she got a ladder and climbed up to work on it. A task that she had wanted to do in the past, but it had always made her uneasy.
“You have this boundary, a limitation for yourself,” Worden says. “And when you do something to break through that boundary, it starts to spill out into the rest of your life.”
Worden and Monahan are also avid yoga practitioners, and they agree that their yoga practice is crucial to helping them know their limits for cold-water swimming. They use skill sets from yoga, like paying close attention to their breath and sensations in their bodies, to differentiate between a healthy challenge and unnecessary risk.
“Just like you do in yoga when you’re holding a pose, you’re just keeping your breath really consistent and making sure you’re breathing,” Monahan says. She’s a seven-time U.S. national champion in winter swimming, two-time world champion in ice swimming and an inductee of the Ice Swimming Hall of Fame.
“Being in that flow state, that’s such a great feeling. When things aren’t in alignment, giving you the tools to get through it. Recognize if it’s a problem. If it’s not, keep going.”
Cold Water Benefits — and Risks
Beyond feeling invigorated, regular cold water swimmers have noticed other benefits. Similar to exercise, it makes your heart rate go up as your body fights to stay warm, which may improve cardiovascular health and metabolic function. But it also comes with a serious risk of cardiac arrest, and isn’t safe if you have a heart condition.
There is also preliminary research that shows cold exposure along with breathing techniques and meditation may help boost the immune system. A small, peer-reviewed study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America looked at 12 subjects who were put through cold exposure after a 10-day meditation and breath work intervention. It showed that there was an increase in their anti-inflammatory cytokines, which play a role in initiating the inflammatory response and defending against pathogens.
Although many beneficial claims are anecdotal, cold-water swimming appears to be a healthy therapy that’s accessible and affordable and can bolster well-being.
“Our hope is to codify this using neuroimaging to try and understand how some of these interventions impact brain function, brain neurochemistry and so on,” Diwadkar says.
Diwadkar says that while you can see some of these same benefits with high intensity exercise, a large part of the population might not be able to perform it due to physical limitations or injuries. Cold-water swimming, in contrast, is low impact and may be more accessible for people with injuries.
Is It Safe?
Immersing yourself in cold water has risks, and some may be deadly. The Outdoor Swimming Society, a worldwide organization that promotes year-round, safe outdoor swimming says that while thousands take to the cold waters to swim every year, there is the potential danger of drowning. Other risks include cold shock, where you initially gasp from experiencing sudden cold. This is more an issue when you jump into the water versus slowly entering.
Cold incapacitation — when you lose dexterity and coordination from getting too cold — cramps and hypothermia are also risks. Much like exercise, consult with your doctor prior to attempting cold-water swimming.
Neoprene boots, swim cap and gloves are helpful to stay more comfortable in the water. Have a system that allows you to easily get into your bathing suit and gear — as well as out of the water quickly, dried off, clothed and in a warm space. Never swim alone, and have a spotter on shore for emergencies.
If you’re careful and healthy enough, cold water ambassadors like Worden say it’s worth it. Even in a pandemic, she’s having the best winter of her life thanks to cold-water swimming.
“When everything gets stripped away, it opens up possibilities to discover new activities and ways to connect with other people,” Worden says. “I never imagined that I would be swimming in the winter waters, but now I can’t imagine my life without it.”
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