An ice-cold swim may reduce ‘bad’ body fat, but further health benefits are unclear – Current Science review suggests

Taking a dip in cold water can reduce “bad” body fat in men and reduce the risk of disorders such as diabetes, suggests a major scientific review published in the journal Science. International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

The authors say many of the 104 studies they analyzed showed significant effects of cold water swimming, including “good” fat that helps burn calories. This can protect against obesity, cardiovascular disease, they add.

However, the review was unclear overall on the health benefits of cold water bathing, an increasingly popular pastime.

Much of the available research involved small numbers of participants, often of the same sex, and with differences in water temperature and salt composition. In addition, it is unclear whether winter swimmers are naturally healthier, says the scientific expert team of authors from UiT The Arctic University of Norway and from the University Hospital of Northern Norway.

“From this review, it is clear that there is growing scientific support that voluntary exposure to cold water may have some beneficial health effects,” says lead author James Mercer, from UiT.

“Many of the studies demonstrated significant effects of cold water immersion on various physiological and biochemical parameters. But the question of whether or not these are beneficial to health is difficult to assess.

“Based on the results of this review, many of the health benefits claimed from regular cold exposure may not be causal. Instead, they may be explained by other factors such as an active lifestyle, trained stress management, social interactions, as well as a positive mindset.

“Without further definitive studies, the issue will continue to be a matter of debate.”

Weight loss, better mental health and increased libido are among the numerous health and wellness claims made by regular cold water immersion fans or anecdotal.

This activity takes many forms, such as swimming in cold water during winter, and is the subject of increasing interest worldwide.

The main objective of the review was to determine whether voluntary exposure to cold water has health effects in humans. The methodology included a detailed search of the scientific literature.

Studies where participants wore wet suits, accidental immersion in cold water and water temperatures greater than 20 degrees Celsius were excluded from the review.

Topics covered by studies eligible for review included inflammation, adipose tissue, blood circulation, immune system and oxidative stress.

Immersion in cold water has a significant impact on the body and causes a shock response such as an increased heart rate.

Some studies have provided evidence that cardiovascular risk factors actually improve in cold-acclimated swimmers. However, other studies show that the workload on the heart is still increased.

The review provided information on positive links between cold water swimming and brown adipose tissue (BAT), a type of ‘good’ body fat activated by cold. BAT burns calories to maintain body temperature unlike “bad” white fat that stores energy.

Cold exposure to water – or air – also appears to increase adiponectin production from adipose tissue. This protein plays a key role in protecting against insulin resistance, diabetes and other diseases.

Repeated immersions in cold water during the winter months significantly increased insulin sensitivity and decreased insulin concentrations, according to the review. This was for both novice and experienced swimmers.

However, the authors point out that the profile of swimmers participating in the studies varied. They ranged from elite swimmers or established winter swimmers to those with no previous winter swimming experience.

Others were not strictly ice bathers, but used cold water immersion as a post-exercise treatment.

Education about the health risks associated with freezing water immersion is also needed, the authors say. These include the effects of hypothermia and the heart and lung problems often associated with cold shock.

Source:

Journal Reference:

10.1080/22423982.2022.2111789

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