Adam Boggon, MBChB, was working at the Royal Free Hospital in North London during the city’s second wave of COVID-19. “I was effectively living in the hospital,” he recalled. “It felt like I was going 10,000 miles per hour, trying to corral hundreds of medical students and doctors.”
During a national lockdown, there were few places Dr. Boggon could escape to, but the Hampstead Heath swimming ponds mostly remained open. He swam there regularly to exercise and recharge even in winter.
“Swimming in cold water takes you out of yourself,” Dr. Boggon said. “It was such a release for someone who grew up in a rural place and had access to green space, even though the water is murky.” It also hovers around 50 °F (10 °C).
Jumping into cold water, well, kind of stinks. So why do it? It’s not only for bragging rights., specifically to improve depression symptoms and even ease inflammatory conditions.
And a lot of that research is driven by medical pros who love to do it themselves.
For Dr. Boggon, swimming in frigid water is uncomfortable, but he feels that a sensation of calmness follows that makes the plunge more than worth it. Now a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard, where he studies public health and health management, Dr. Boggon is able to frequent the fabled Walden Pond just outside of Boston.
As Thoreau himself said, “You can never have enough of nature.”
Yes, even if it’s really, really cold.
Taking a deeper dive
Heather Massey, PhD, a senior lecturer in Sport, Health, and Exercise Science at University of Portsmouth, blames her father, a dinghy sailor, for her affinity for cold-water swimming.
And she’s done more than most, including an epic 16-hour crossing of the English Channel. The water temperature was in the upper-50s °F, and she swam without a wetsuit. “Time just seemed to collapse,” she has shared about the experience.
While working on her PhD and studying the effects of environmental physiology, in particular what happens to the body when it gets hot or cold, Dr. Massey’s hobby and studies seemed to coalesce.
Her research initially focused on the hazards around being in cold open water. But she also noticed a growing trend of people claiming health benefits from the practice. “People started to talk about experiencing improved symptoms of depression or improved mental health from their activities in the water,” she said.
She partnered with another outdoor swimming enthusiast, Hannah Denton, a counseling psychologist working for the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. Ms. Denton was publishing papers on the potential impact that outdoor swimming may have on people with depression and how it could improve mental health in general. She also regularly engages in cold-water swims to boost feelings of mindfulness and peace.
“Having the experience of being so close to nature, as well as the strong sensory experience of being in cold water, does really encourage you to be in the moment,” Ms. Denton wrote in an article for the Sussex Mindfulness Centre. “My experiences of sea swimming and mindfulness support each other. Both have made me feel more comfortable with my body, to have more of a present moment focus, to pay attention to my breathing, and to gain distance from difficult thoughts.”
Over the past few years, Dr. Massey and Ms. Denton have moved from fairly small-scale studies with no real controls to today, completing a randomized controlled trial and looking at the impact that outdoor swimming may have on people living with mild to moderate depression.
“At first, people sort of thought our idea was a bit wacky,” said Dr. Massey. “Now, the popularity of open-water swimming has really blossomed, and so has this area of research. We’re starting to build more rigor into the work.”
Like all the researchers and physicians interviewed for this article, Dr. Massey hesitates to claim that cold-water swimming is a “cure” that should be medicalized.
“It’s not about prescribing it or forcing people to do it,” said Dr. Massey. “This is not something that a doctor should write on a prescription and say you should go and have eight 1-hour sessions of swimming.”