SF Bay Swimmer prepares to go into Aquatic Park; photo credit: SFchronical.com

What if someone told you to go jump in the Hudson River or the San Francisco Bay?  You’d probably reply with a few expletives and hand gestures (especially if you’re a New Yorker).  But what if you were told swimming in cold water may extend your life and make you, overall, a much happier person?

Prior to a few months ago, I hadn’t thought much of cold water swims.  I knew of the Polar Bear Club Plunge off of Coney Island on New Year’s Day, and triathlons in both San Francisco and New York City that required swimming in their respective rivers.  But these were once-in-a-lifetime events for the super athletic (and potentially maniacal).  (And I think most of those people use wetsuits.)  Little did I know I’d be swimming in one of those rivers myself- and enjoying it.

Famous motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and Tim Ferriss spend small fortunes on cryogenic chambers (cold, dry air submersions) and freezers of ice packs (for cold baths) to get the same effect one may receive from jumping into their local watering hole- without a wetsuit.

SF Bay swim group shot, photo credit: pinterest.com

In the past month, I’ve swam 5 times in the San Francisco Bay at temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees. (The Hudson River is currently at 56 degrees, so it’s not far off.) I’ve met people who swim in the SF Bay, sometimes 70 minutes at a clip, 6 days a week.  Most of these people are in their 60’s and 70’s and look like they’re in their 50’s. But aside from how great they look, these people are some of the happiest I’ve ever seen.  They have an upbeat and confident energy that emanates from their whole being, and it’s magnetic.

Why is this?  Turns out, cold water swimming (the definition of cold water is a heavily argued topic among swimmers, but the general consensus is: water below 63.5°F, no wetsuit ), and even a simple cold water immersion, has many health benefits.  These include eliminating disease, improving mood, and prolonging life spans- in addition to making you look stellar.  What can it do for you?

Improve Your Circulation: The initial shock of cold water on the body forces it to react quickly.  Blood flushes throughout the body’s veins, arteries and capillaries, purging your system of toxins down to the lymphatic system. Circulation is improved, which can reduce the feeling of being cold frequently. Most women who swim in cold water are convinced it even eliminates cellulite, tightening the epidermal layer overall.  This systemic flush exfoliates the skin’s surface, resulting in younger looking skin.

As someone who is cold almost all the time (and doesn’t mind having better skin), this is a huge benefit.

Get Sick Less: Cold water swimming boosts your immune system.  A person’s white blood cell count increases to fight the purging of toxins from the body’s lymphatic system’s release.  Over time, this helps improve the body’s defenses, resulting in fewer colds (from studies done in the Czech Republic, cold water swimmers have 40% less upper respiratory diseases).

Have an All-Natural High: The feeling of well-being that overcomes us from an ice cold plunge is due to a release of endorphins (triggered when we approach a pain barrier… or an orgasm). In addition, the cold stimulates the parasympathetic system (usually responsible for rest and repair), releasing dopamine and serotonin. This coupled with endorphins is enough to zap depression and release a flood of euphoria. Oh yeah- and they also report less fatigue and improved memory.

Improve Your Sex Life: Studies have found that cold water immersion has increased testosterone for men and estrogen for women; it enhances the libido and improves fertility.

Burn Calories Fast: Metabolism is boosted through increased blood circulation to keep the body warm. Twice the number of calories are burned in cold water swims versus normal temperatures. White fat (which creates that roll around the waste) is burned, while brown fat (which protects the organs) is produced.

Reduce Stress: The body will go through stress (oxidative stress) from the initial cold water plunge, which ultimately results in less stress (or improved stress protection); cold water swimmers are generally calmer, happier, more relaxed, and stronger all around.

Above all, researchers are seeing an increased life expectancy and quality of life for cold water swimmers.

Be awareAs you enter cold water for a swim, take your time and let your body adjust (fight the urge to completely submerge right away). Your body will go into shock and hyperventilate for the first minute or so. Work up to spending longer time periods in cold water.  You may want to get a good swim workout initially, but keep it short: spend 5 minutes swimming the first time and increase the amount of time with each additional swim. Build up to a 15-30 minute swim (1/2 mile-1 mile).  Once you’re good with a mile swim, you can do longer stints and that’s when the health benefits really start to take effect.

Simple immersionFor those of us who may not be near an access point for ‘wild’ cold water swimming, try a cold shower or bath instead.  It’ll take some time to get used to, but you’ll start looking forward to the alert and happy feeling it produces.

Next time someone tells you to go jump in a river, I hope you respond with: Great idea, I may do just that.