Seattle’s year-round cold water swimmers say the practice is mood lifting and life changing

Oct 26, 2022, 5:03 AM
cold water...
(Haley Phelps/Unsplash)
(Haley Phelps/Unsplash)

Just before sunset, on a smoky October evening, Jessica Cohen emerges from the Puget Sound.

“I feel wonderful,” said Cohen. “Your skin is tingling and you just feel fabulous.

Cohen regularly goes cold water swimming with a group of women.

“It’s called cold water swimming. I call it reconnecting with nature,” laughed Seattle’s Lina Karman, standing on a small Seattle beach in her swimsuit. “We go into the sound all year round. In the summer, in the winter, in the snow, in the rain. Hail was not a good experience! We started off at 30 seconds and then we went up to two minutes, three minutes and now, at this time of year, I’m at about 45 minutes and in the summer, I can stay in for an hour because it’s warmer … by my standards!”

Cold water swimming, and cold plunging into icy baths, is having a moment and its devotees swear by the health benefits.

“For your mental health,” said Karman. “You cannot come out of the water and be in a bad mood. It’s just not possible. I know people who have serious anxiety issues and they told me if they come every day for half an hour, they don’t have to take anxiety medicine. The end of it is just the feeling of joy and gratitude.”

“It’s good for your metabolism, it’s good for depression, anxiety, anti-inflammatory, kind of everything,” said Seattle’s Kayla Galago before she walked into the sound.

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Swimmers, no doubt, feel the benefits. But Mike Tipton, professor of physiology at the extreme environments laboratory at the UK’s University of Portsmouth, says there haven’t been many studies done to back up the health claims.

“It could be a placebo effect, but placebo effect is still an effect,” said Tipton. “And if you’re the person who is benefiting because you do feel great or you perceived that you haven’t had a cold for a year or you perceive that the physical or mental illness you had is improved, then fine, that’s great. As a scientist, it’s slightly different in that I want to know why it’s improved because if we can find out the mechanism, there may be other ways of provoking it that don’t involve people doing open water swimming who can’t. If you found that the actual thing about going in cold water is getting cold feet, then you can get cold feet without having to go swimming around in the sea.”

He said the key will be proving that the cold water is solely responsible for making people feel good.

“You haven’t really isolated the active ingredient,” said Tipton. “When you go open water swimming, you do lots of other things. You meet people, you go to a beautiful place, you immerse yourself in a near-weightless environment, you do some exercise, you come out, you have a cup of coffee, you have a big piece of cake. Any one of those things might be the active ingredient, and so until we’ve done the studies, we can’t truly say that it’s cold water swimming that’s providing the benefit.”

The women I spoke to on the beach inadvertently supported Tipton’s theory when they talked about what they loved about the experience.

“The comradery between women, which is really nice,” said Karman. “There’s a huge connection with nature; I’ve had a few really close encounters with seals, which is super nice. It’s super beautiful. I think it shocks your system so you get out of your head.”

Tipton’s all for the practice, but warns people to be very careful.

“If we’re talking water that’s below mid-60s, 10 minutes is as much as you want,” said Tipton. “The evidence suggests it’s probably the first two or three minutes that’s doing all the beneficial things. After about 15 minutes in 50-degree water, for example, you can become physically incapacitated.”

Tipton says the trend of cold plunges for health is hardly new; everyone from the ancient Greek physicist Hippocrates to Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin swore by it.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.” Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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Seattle’s year-round cold water swimmers say the practice is mood lifting and life changing