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Taking the plunge this Christmas?

Nurturing

COLD WATER COOL This year has seen the explosion in popularity of swimming in the sea, regardless of the weather.

Health

Andrew O'Brien

Apparently, it’s Christmas week. Can anyone explain how that happened? In a year where a week seemed to last for 18 days, the months have taken five minutes each.
Those of you who cut this column out of the paper and save it in a scrapbook each week (I’m looking at you, mum) may recall that almost exactly 12 months ago, I wrote a piece extolling the virtues of swimming in winter. At the time I suggested that swimming indoors was a clever option in winter, and that outdoor swimming in December was for the hardy or the foolhardy. Fast forward through the weirdest year in living memory and all of a sudden, the Dryrobed hordes have invaded every coastal swimming spot known to man. Even in December.
Swimming as a form of exercise has numerous benefits for everyone. The impact is relatively low, making it easier on those with joint issues, and the need to regulate breathing patterns can be great for asthmatics. But this year has seen the explosion in popularity of swimming in the sea, regardless of the weather. Places like the Forty Foot in Sandycove, once busy on Christmas day and a handful of warm days through the summer, are now busy every day. It can be hard to get a spot in the car park at the Point in Westport at high tide of late, such is the popularity of sea swimming.

Benefits
Cold-water swimming has been reported to boost everything from the immune system and circulation to mood and libido. It also helps to burn calories as your body kicks into overdrive to try to keep you warm, and is said to lower stress. Interestingly, cold-water swimming tends to be more sociable than swimming in the pool. This is partly because you aren’t churning through the lengths staring at a black line, but also because most people tend to gather around afterwards for a chat over a hot drink.
This begs an interesting question as to whether the benefits are truly due to the physical act of getting in the water, or to the psychosocial aspects of finding a new community with shared interests. In reality, it’s impossible to separate one from the other, and perhaps that is why so many people have taken the plunge.

Risks
Of course, such a pastime is not without its risks. Cold-water shock isn’t anything to do with being surprised that the water is cold. If you are shocked by cold water in Ireland in December, you need more help than I can provide. Rather, cold-water shock occurs when surface blood vessels constrict, increasing resistance to blood flow and making the heart work harder. Most people feel a degree of this in the sudden rises in pulse and breathing that comes as you hit the cold water, but severe cases can lead to heart attack, as the heart can’t cope with the sudden change in load.
Hypothermia, where the body’s core temperature drops is another real risk, is more likely in cold water than on dry land. One of the first signs of hypothermia is a loss of dexterity in the hands, and in water temperatures of 10ºC that can start within ten minutes. Any windchill while in the water or when getting out raises the risks further.

Safe cold-water swimming
Despite the risks, swimming in cold water is great fun, and what better time than Christmas to have a bit of craic with family and friends? There are simple ways to reduce the risk, many of which are valid regardless of water temperature. First, only go in to a depth that matches your swimming ability, and never swim in open water alone. Don’t jump or dive in unless you are truly used to the cold water; rather take your time getting in and allow your body to acclimatise somewhat.
If you aren’t planning to go for a swim as such, consider wearing a woollen hat to keep your head warm. Those going for a ‘proper’ swim should really be in a wetsuit and hat, and may consider gloves and boots as well. Always make sure you have plenty of warm dry clothing on hand when you get out, and ideally a flask with a hot drink to warm you up.
Whether you swim or not, we’d like to wish you all a happy, healthy and safe Christmas, and a New Year with slightly fewer distractions than this last one. Best wishes to all.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.