Why the shocking cold of winter bathing is a Nordic favourite

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Why the shocking cold of winter bathing is a Nordic favourite
Winter bathing is as popular as ever in Scandinavia. Photo: Martina Holmberg/TT

A popular leisure pursuit in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, the ice-cold water that surrounds the body when winter bathing can offer a wave of health benefits.


Taking the body out of its normal state of equilibrium, as occurs when jumping into the icy Scandinavian waters, actually feels very good, according to a Swedish researcher.

With winter fast approaching in the Nordic countries, many are set to resume the pastime of dipping the body in freezing seas.

“Interest has increased greatly in recent years,” author Karl Hultén, who also teaches biomedicine at Linköping University, said in relation to the popularity of winter bathing in Sweden.

“When I started winter bathing twelve years ago, facilities were run down and only had a handful of visitors,” Hultén said.

“Now, the number of visitors has doubled and in Stockholm winter bathing facilities are overcrowded,” he added.

Hultén, who has researched in neuroscience at Karolinska Institute, said that the body is subjected to great stress when bathing cold – and this can actually have a positive effect.

“It has been found that the body benefits from being taken out of its equilibrium state. Jumping into cold water is a very easy way to do this,” he said.

In Sweden, winter bathing facilities first emerged around 100 years ago, according to Anders Reisnert, a retired city historian in Malmö.

“Bathing cold has always been done. There was often no alternative. But it started to become organized at the beginning of the 1900s,” Reisnert said.

“There was a peak before the Second World War, then bathing was toned down in the 1960s and 70s, when some bathing houses were actually heated because there was no interest in being there,” he added, agreeing that recent years have seen a new wave of interest.

Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Research into the health benefits of winter bathing indicate benefits including lower risk of infections, reduced inflammation and better stress control.

“These (benefits) are supported (by research),” Hultén said.

Depression is another area in which winter bathing may benefit the sufferer.

When the body cools quickly, blood vessels contract, causing a rise in blood pressure in the central parts of the body and more circulation in the trunk than in the limbs.

At the same time, stress hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol are released to raise blood sugar.

“The body perceives it as a very stressful situation and prepares for survival,” Hultén said.

People with high blood pressure or with heart conditions should therefore consult a doctor before trying winter bathing. It is also important not to stay exposed to the cold for too long.

“You shouldn’t be shivering when you leave. Four, five minutes in the water is too long. But small doses are great,” Hultén said.

Five essential winter bathing tips:

  • Always bathe with others
  • Use a bathing cap and flip flops to avoid injuries from the cold
  • Consult your doctor before winter bathing if you have high blood pressure or a heart condition
  • Avoid winter bathing after drinking alcohol
  • Be careful and don’t run on the decking: it is usually icy.

READ ALSO: Danish researchers to test whether winter bathing can burn fat



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