A new study suggests that taking a dip in ice water can reduce bad body fat in men and reduce the risk of ailments such as diabetes.
The researchers looked at 104 studies and found that many reported significant effects from swimming in cold water, including on good fat that helps burn calories.
They suggest this may protect against obesity and cardiovascular disease.
But the review was overall inconclusive about the health benefits of cold water bathing, an activity that is gaining popularity.
From this review, it is clear that there is growing scientific support that voluntary exposure to cold water can have some beneficial health effects
James Mercer, UiT
It’s unclear whether winter swimmers are naturally healthier or not, says the research team of UiT The Arctic University of Norway and the University Hospital of North Norway.
Lead author James Mercer, of UiT, said, “From this review, it is clear that there is growing scientific support that voluntary exposure to cold water may have some beneficial health effects.
“Many studies have shown significant effects of cold water immersion on various physiological and biochemical parameters.
“But the question of whether or not these are health benefits is difficult to assess.
“Based on the findings of this review, many of the claimed health benefits of regular cold exposure may not be causal.
“Instead, they can be explained by other factors including an active lifestyle, trained stress management, social interactions and a positive mindset.
“Without further conclusive studies, the topic will continue to be debated.”
The review indicated a positive link between swimming in cold water and brown adipose tissue (BAT), a type of good body fat that is activated by cold.
BAT burns calories to maintain body temperature, unlike “bad” white fat which stores energy.
The study found that exposure to cold in water – or air – also appears to increase the production of the adiponectin protein by adipose tissue.
This protein plays a key role in protecting against insulin resistance, diabetes and other diseases.
According to the findings, repeated cold water dives during the winter months significantly increased insulin sensitivity and decreased insulin concentrations.
Much of the available research has involved a small number of people, often of one sex, and with varying water temperatures and salt levels.
The new study reports that weight loss, better mental health, and increased libido are among the many health and wellness claims made by followers of regular cold water immersion or stemming from anecdotal cases.
It can take many forms such as swimming in cold water during the winter and is the subject of growing interest around the world.
The main objective of the review was to determine whether voluntary exposure to cold water affects human health.
The researchers ruled out studies in which people wore wetsuits, accidental immersion in cold water, and water temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius.
However, they say education about the health risks associated with a dip in ice water is also needed.
These include the consequences of hypothermia and heart and lung problems that are often related to cold shock.
The results are published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.