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Why a New Year's dip is good for your body

Will you start 2022 as a polar bear with a more than refreshing New Year's dip? Ice swimming or winter swimming is very popular in Scandinavian countries, where swimming in a hole in the ice is popular. But also mass events like a New Year's dive are growing in popularity in our region. What does swimming in icy water do to your body, what are the risks and how do you do it safely?

Effects of swimming in cold water 

A refreshing dip? That has a blood pressure lowering effect and your cholesterol also benefits. Blood substances associated with the development of heart disease, such as homocysteine, also tend to drop. Regular winter swimming raises the hormones ACTH and cortisol in the blood. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and prepares the body for physical and psychological stress factors. Noradrenaline also rises with regular winter swimming, which can even have pain-relieving effects.

More important than ever, your immune system. And yes, research shows that winter swimmers have fewer upper respiratory tract infections (colds, bronchitis, sinusitis), presumably due to an improvement in their immune response.

There is also a psychological effect. There have been cases of people who, after years of battling depression, became medication-free through regular winter swimming. Studies confirm that there is an effect in the treatment of depression. Presumably, the cause is a combination of an increase in Noradrenaline and endorphins (natural happiness hormones) in the blood.

But what are the risks? 

Swimming in cold water has its benefits, but it also brings risks, the main one being hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs in three stages. During the first three minutes, the sudden cooling of the skin causes a faster heartbeat and hyperventilation. Longer periods of immersion cause the muscles and nerves, especially those of the limbs, to hypothermia, and after about thirty minutes the body becomes totally hypothermic, which can lead to cardiac arrhythmia, coma and potentially even loss of life.

Recommendations 

If you want to go for a winter swim, first try to find someone to go with you, or do it somewhere in a supervised environment. If you are unwell, there is always someone who can help you. When you go into the water, go in calmly, the sudden cold shock of jumping in can lead to drowning. Maybe you can get a medical check-up beforehand, especially if you have people in your family who’ve passed away suddenly or if you have some years of experience. 

Don't stay in the water too long, a few minutes in cold water will already have the beneficial effects, if you stay in the water too long there is a risk of hypothermia and problems. After swimming, avoid warming up quickly with a hot shower, put on warm clothes and have a hot drink, this will ensure a pleasant and safe return to normal body temperature.

Enjoy!

This article was written in close collaboration with cardiologist Yves Van Belle 

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