What Is Wild Swimming & How Can It Affect Immunity?
There have been many health and fitness crazes over the years, all of which have promised to bring people out of unhealthy habits and lifestyles and into the best shape of their life. While some were scientifically backed and ended up being good things to incorporate into a healthy lifestyle, others fell short and often caused more harm than good. It can be difficult to tell the difference between an effective and long-term habit and a passing health fad.
Wild swimming is another one of those health crazes that has been hitting the waves of the fitness community lately, so to speak. While it may technically be a fad, there may also be some scientific evidence to support the claims that it comes with many health benefits. Whatever the case, wild swimming has made a splash in the fitness and healthy lifestyle communities. But what is wild swimming, exactly? And how can wild swimming affect immunity and overall health?
What is wild swimming?
The term “wild swimming” is used to describe the act of swimming outdoors in natural bodies of water. Whether it be a lake, the ocean, or even a river, the principle of the new health craze is to swim in natural water that is often cold to freezing. This wild swimming thing is not new, though.
The very first reports of cold water therapy being beneficial were found as far back as 400 BC, but this evidence was highly anecdotal. It was said by Hippocrates that the cold water helped to relieve fatigue.
Then again, back in the 18th century, the same act was called “romantic swimming” or “hydromania”. In the beginning, it wasn’t so much swimming as it was bathing in cold water for medicinal purposes. When its popularity soared, it changed from just typical bathing to “romantic swimming”. It even played a huge role in the lives of some of the most romantic writers to ever exist, such as John Keats and Lord Byron.
From literary meanings and humble beginnings, wild swimming in the 21st century is looking less and less like a health fad that has since recycled itself amongst a new crowd.
Is wild swimming good for you?
Firstly, swimming in and of itself is of some health benefit, because it is a great form of physical exercise. Studies show that swimming in any water is good for the body and can help to improve fitness levels, cardiovascular health, and blood lipids. But what does water temperature have to do with it?
Some studies have found that swimming in cold water can offer more than just the benefit of added exercise. It can lead to significant changes in the body, including hematological and endocrine function, lowered frequency of upper respiratory tract infections, regulation of mood disorders, and increase in an overall sense of general wellbeing.
Considering the health benefits, it might be tempting to go jump in a lake and get some of that goodness right away. But as with many things, wild swimming may also come with some risks.
Is wild swimming safe?
When the body is submerged in cold water, it becomes physiologically stressed out. When this happens, the body goes on high-alert, and some studies have found that it can bring on a bout of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants and leads to widespread inflammation throughout the body. This is detrimental to health and, over time, can cause the onset of chronic disease.
Research isn’t clear on whether the oxidative stress corrects itself following the cold-water swim, though; it may be that the more a person submerges themselves in the cold water, the more easily they adapt. For those who undertake cold water therapy on a regular basis, research has shown that it can provide some benefits; however, for those who are inexperienced, there is still the risk of death because of the neurogenic cold shock response or hypothermia.
Those who have underlying health conditions may also be at risk, especially when it comes to cardiovascular health. Studies have shown that those who suffer from arrhythmias and acute cardiovascular events could be throwing themselves to the sharks if they are not adequately prepared and eased into the practice.
How can wild swimming affect immunity?
Many of the claims about wild swimming and health today focus solely on the immune system. Research has shown that those claims hold some accuracy. Winter swimmers have been shown to be 40% less likely to develop infections of their upper respiratory tract than those who do not partake in the activity.
Wild or cold water swimming has also been shown to have a direct impact on hematology as it relates to the immune system. It’s thought that the decrease in infections in those who expose themselves to cold water could be brought on by the release of stress hormones, which in turn causes an immune response to be triggered. This continued act of exposure, stress hormone release, and immune response primes the body to fight off infections.
Other research has found that immersion in cold water doesn’t have to last the length of an entire swim for it to be effective. In one particular study, subjects were asked to spend a few minutes in ice-cold water to see if the body underwent a physiological response. The results showed that immune cells increased following a short 150-meter swim in water that was 6 degrees Celsius. But even though studies show promising results, it is still uncertain whether the response lasts for a long period of time following the exposure, or if it is short-lived after one gets out of the water.
Although wild swimming may seem like a fad now, it has been around for centuries, and studies show there may be something more to it. If you’re looking to try it out for yourself, be sure to speak with your doctor beforehand so that you can prepare appropriately.