Why Swim in Cold Water

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Author (black shorts with arms in the air) and friends, January 2, 2013

“You’re crazy!” is still the most common response when I ask people if they want to join me in my annual polar bear plunge to celebrate the new year. By their expressions, the mere idea of diving into near-freezing water in the coldest months of the year seems painful.

But cold water isn’t insane. It is perfectly sane, and healthy and fun to boot. Its benefits are a bit more difficult to articulate than the somewhat comedic protestations against being cold, but that does not make them nonexistent. If it was not beneficial, it seems unlikely that people would have been doing it for generations, and continue to do it to this day, in a variety of forms.

Before diving into the benefits, we should clear up one increasingly more prevalent myth: cold-water swimming does not increase testosterone directly. Too much heat being bad for your balls does not make too little good, contra most studies and arguments praising the hormonal benefits of blasting your balls with cold.

However, we know that winning at competitive activities tends to increase tesosterone, biochemistry of the gonads completely aside. And proving to yourself that you can plunge into the water, to endure the pain and overcome your own fear and suffering, is a tremendous feeling of power:

“As soon as you put the exercise in the center, and you see the difference between religion and spirituality and science, there is, in fact, just the explanation. Religion, spirituality and science are circling about something that’s definitely good for us. Train your body man […]

I’m not easily convinced, but I’m always looking for something that gives me some control in this fucking situation. you have a life expectancy of two months, and then you’re out of control. Maybe it’s the same with the autonomous immune system. I would like to be autonomous myself a little. And when there is really something that can be done and proves it’s all right and makes me feel better, it’s very satisfying. It’s very satisfying…

Please, let nobody who sees this program think that you’re just getting into control and then drive onto some mountain and conquer cancer. I don’t like this speech of conquering cancer and doing something. But when you get something to do and to practice, which you can understand and which you can do and which you can practice, some feeling of control comes back, and I like that very much.”

Rene Gude

Nietzsche believed that happiness was feeling yourself increase in power. Increasing your power is winning, it is attaining control, and this is more important over yourself than over your environment or your enemies. What good would control over your enemies be if you could not control yourself?

Perhaps this is why participants in winter swimming events experience a generally better quality of life and less pain than those who do not, as well as receiving antioxidative benefits. Control reduces stress. The sense that “I can handle it” means your body doesn’t have to spend as much energy perseverating over possible future troubles, and can direct more towards things like fighting off infections.

It would be wrong to act as if cold-water swimming were the only way to attain these benefits. In principle, it is no different than weight training, or running long distances. But it is a different, festive, and novel form at the very least, with a kind of primal aesthetic that comes from conquering one of the oldest, harshest enemies of our species: the cold.

Wim Hof can conquer it. You can too.

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