Swimming in Cold Water Has Done Wonders for My Stress
There’s a scientific rationale for why some people find swimming in the freezing cold to be so invigorating
In eighth grade, I accidentally bumped against a low-voltage cattle fence while pounding a posthole into the mud with an iron rod. It wasn’t until I began swimming in the bracingly cool waters of the Atlantic this autumn that I felt a similar electric jolt. My initial plunge sent a scream through my torso and limbs, down through the tips of my fingers and toes. It was a stinging, full-bodied smack—but then a pleasant numbness. I swam along the shore for a full 20 minutes. When I came out, I felt more alive than I have through most of the pandemic.
I was hooked. And, judging from the handful of triathletes and eastern European stalwarts I spotted in the waves along with me, I wasn’t alone. When I recently returned to my swimming spot on Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach — six weeks, five swims, one wetsuit, and a water temperature drop of eight degrees Fahrenheit later — a string-bikini-wearing grandmother beat me into the water.
In a stroke of pandemic restlessness, I’d unwittingly opened the door to a hobby with a devoted, year-round following — and centuries of health hype.
People have bathed in cold water for fun and fitness since antiquity. But according to some sources, “wild swimming” has seen a recent upswing in popularity. It’s an especially popular activity across northern and eastern Europe and throughout the U.K., where members of open-water swimming clubs descend on their local oceans, lakes, and ponds well after the lifeguards and sun revelers have hung up their Speedos for the season.
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These swimmers aren’t just endurance bros and Baltic babushkas, either. The Instagram page for a virtual, millennial-friendly, all-season swimming club called The Outdoor Swimming Society boasts 43,000 followers, many of whom post swim selfies with hashtags that nod at a holistic health bent…