The annual Christmas Day swim is a well-established tradition. While there are several perceived health benefits for swimming in cold water, recent research suggests differently
I love to swim. Anywhere I travel in the world, I always try to seek out the nearest water hole to leave my mark. It’s not really swimming, more just getting cold and wet for a time.
I started going to the 40 Foot in Dún Laoghaire regularly about a decade ago. The habit was borne out of some health benefits I perceived there to be in cold-water swimming. Some you may have heard and swear by yourself – improved blood circulation, psychological wellbeing, hangover cure, muscle relaxation, salt water on the skin and so on.
However, recent research from the University of Portsmouth suggests that many of these perceived benefits may be negligible at best. The research looked at professional athletes’ use of treatments such as cryotherapy and ice baths. Despite athletes engaging in such practices for decades, the definitive research has shown there to be very little positive benefit to such tactics.
On the contrary, there seem to be more risks than anything else. “Sudden unexpected immersion into water at temperatures below 15 degrees centigrade can cause problems,” explains Dr Giles Warrington, programme chairman of Sports Science and Health at Dublin City University (DCU). “The greatest risk from swimming occurs from the initial cold shock,” he says. “The immediate response of the body is hyperventilation, which is four times what it would normally be at rest. If you get hit by a wave at this point, it could be quite disorientating.”
Another way of describing this is that our normal 12-15 breaths-per-minute average increases four times when immersed in cold water.
“A dramatic increase in heart rate will follow and the body will keep blood nearer to the core which results in a sudden rise in blood pressure,” he adds. “This all happens in the first minute so there can be risk of a panic attack. If you can overcome that, then your physiological system will normalise. The sudden increase in respiration and heart rate can be dangerous for anyone with any cardiac irregularities, especially older people.”
Many of the regular swimmers at the 40 Foot would be older and have existing cardiac irregularities. Monica Uzell (59) has been swimming daily for the past 10 years. “I have heart problems but my GP says for me to keep doing whatever I’m doing,” she says.
Similarly, 76-year-old Christy Dunne has made his way from Blackrock to Dún Laoghaire for a daily dip for the past 12 years. “It’s very addictive,” he says. “Plus it’s very good for sinus. Most importantly for me though, I’m getting exercise and meeting people. I have a pacemaker and there are plenty of other regular swimmers down here with pacemakers. The important thing if you have a heart condition is to avoid diving into the cold water. It’s better to wade in.”
According to Warrington, “If you do it regularly and are a seasoned swimmer, that’s one thing. But jumping into deep, cold water once a year can be dangerous. Without being alarmist, death from cold shock is not uncommon.”
It was assumed by professional athletes that super cooling your body after exercise was beneficial for muscle relaxation. Not true, says Dr Fiona Wilson from the Trinity School of Physiotherapy: “You’re more likely to suffer cramps or hypothermia.”
So what about the magical hangover cure, the reason cited more than any other at Christmas time? “It’s completely psychological,” says Warrington. “It would be the same as getting out into the open air. Physical activity is beneficial for the brain as it is for the body. Releasing endorphins has a positive feeling and cold water immersion is no different to going outside for a walk in the cold after Christmas dinner.”
According to Wilson, “There’s more risk of infection from pollution in the water. You never know what kinds of microbes are floating around which could infect open wounds.”
Despite all this medical evidence ruining our fun, the overwhelming benefits associated with getting exercise from swimming, coupled with the psychological wellbeing many associate with it, far outweigh all these cons. “Pollutants in the water, cardiac defects, increased blood pressure: the positive benefits from the exercise negates all of these other risks,” says Wilson.
I’ll settle for that.