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Swimming Baths - Cold Cures and Warm Hearts

by Jonathan Buckley(more info)

listed in water, originally published in issue 74 - March 2002

Cold baths are usually synonymous with punishment or passion killing but for some people they hold the secret to a happy and healthy life. Tooting Bec Lido, one of the few places where you can swim outdoors now the leaves are falling.

Bob Fitch was 83 years old when he died. I was halfway through my first length at Tooting Bec Lido when I saw one of my fellow early-morning swimmers sprinting towards the shallow end - "never seem him do that before", I thought. Then a shout went up and I realized why. At the far end of the pool, they were trying to support Bob who had collapsed as he climbed out of the pool. They tried to revive him but he had already taken leave of the world on this bright morning as spring turned to summer and the last of the blossom lay floating on the pool.

The author completing a Sunday morning race
The author completing a Sunday morning race

Bob was just one of a band of eccentrics who swim all the year round at Tooting Bec Lido. They start arriving at dawn to bear witness to the new day, plunging into icy water midst the sound of birdsong, emerging after a few strokes or indeed several lengths, invigorated and ready to face whatever the world may throw at them. From Lords to window cleaners, young and old, male and female, all of them will tell you in their own particular way that "it does you good", that "you won't get any colds" (but of course you do) and that "it is the secret to a long and happy life".

And they are not alone; like-minded souls can be found swimming at Hampstead Ponds, the Serpentine and Hampton and then further afield in the UK, and overseas in Finland, Russia and the USA. Cold water seems to supercharge the system, improving breathing and muscle tone and decreasing fatigue. Some connoisseurs even attribute improved thyroid function and skin tone, together with relief from constipation, to a five-minute dip!

Source of the Cold

The practice of bathing in cold water can be traced back to the first century BC, when the Romans adopted cold-water baths as a cure for stomach problems and headaches. Emperor Augustus (27 BC - 14 BC) made the practice a national passion after his physician Antonius Musa recommended a cold mineral bath as a cure for an abscessed liver. When August survived the painful ailment, Musa became rich, and his cure fashionable.

Many of the swimmers at Tooting Bec Lido share the view that cold is better than warm. Bob Fitch was one of those who argued against a plan to heat the pool, as they do at Hampton Pool in West London. Not on the grounds of expense, which would be considerable, but because it somehow compromised the essence of the practice and the Lido's position as a 'natural' haven in the heart of the city.

The early morning swim, in what has been described as 'Europe's largest refrigerated pool', can be likened to a kind of pagan practice; a particularly vigorous meditation on the elements of each new day. There's the temperature to consider - up or down? How does the water feel? Soft and silky after the rain, or sticky as Velcro when the frost has bitten? Preparing to enter the water, the mind focuses on the here and now. Yesterday's cares, and the trials to come, dissolve in the play of light on water and the shock of entering it. Eighty-year old doctor 'Andy' Anderson, walks with crutches following a failed hip replacement. He jokingly describes his swim as a form of penance: "It gives me the right to live another day. I used to bang my head against a brick wall, this is much better."

Developing Tolerance

Most of the year-round swimmers believe that a dip in the Lido makes them better able to cope with the stress of modern-day urban living, and more resilient to cold weather. The latter has a number of precedents which pop up in a fascinating book called Life at the Extremes - The Science of Survival by Frances Ashcroft.[1] In a chapter entitled 'Life in the Cold', the author cites the story of Scott's 1911 expedition to the South Pole which recounts how expedition member Birdie HG Bowers slept soundly in temperatures below -20ºC without the eiderdown lining of his sleeping bag, while his companion suffered extreme shivering. He never suffered from frostbite and every morning stripped naked in the freezing Antarctic air to douse himself with buckets of icy water and slush.

Other hardened types cited in the chapter include the Yaga Indians of Tierro del Fuego who, Darwin found, lived through the snow and ice of Patagonian winters without any clothing (but fires), and the Australian Aborigines and Kalahari tribesmen who sleep naked in a windbreak, despite night temperatures of below freezing. Ashcroft reports that controlled experiments have confirmed the belief that the body does indeed adapt to the cold. Immersing nude volunteers in water at 15ºC for 30 to 60 minutes over several weeks resulted in greater tolerance and less discomfort when they were subsequently exposed to Arctic conditions.

We 21st-century urban dwellers don't need that level of physical endurance but we might benefit from the sense of well-being that goes with it. Cold water is known to stimulate the hypothalamus and release endorphins, thereby putting the 'feelgood' back into everyday living. The experts on this are the Finns. Half a million of the 5.5 million inhabitants went ice swimming and 80,000 did it at least once a week last year and they have a bestselling manual on the practice of 'ice swimming' just to prove it. It's called Ice Ecstasy and is written by journalist Pasi Heikura, anthropologist Taina Kinnunen and forensic medical specialist Pirkko Huttenen.[2]

Extracting the Benefits

But it's not just the 'feelgood' that cold water creates. Claims have also been made for the therapeutic effect of cold bathing on specific conditions. Reports suggest that ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) sufferers may benefit from daily cold baths which seem to stimulate and 'kick start' the hormonal immune system.[3] The health library website[4] reports that those suffering from painful periods may find relief in a programme of cold hip baths between periods (to increase the tone of the ovaries) and then hot hip baths on alternate nights in the week before starting.

Cold water has also been shown to be a performance enhancer. Former US swimming champion Ron Karnaugh reports how the former East Germans pioneered a training technique called shrinkage, which enables you to train harder and more often without sore or stiff muscles. During a workout, muscles can fill with lactic acid, which creates the 'burn' sensation. A hot shower after training causes small blood vessels to expand and trap blood and waste material in the muscles causing stiff and tender muscles the next day. Cold water reverses this process, resulting in loose, pain-free muscles that are ready for the next day's workout.[5]

And researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia have discovered that endurance athletes competing in warm climates can improve their performance by taking cold baths before events. The internal body temperature is reduced by sitting in a cold bath for about an hour prior to performing. Over a 30-minute run, the athletes averaged 300 metres more than they achieved without cooling.

Dealing with the Cold

The body reacts to cooling by sucking all the warm blood back into the core of the body to nourish and protect vital organs. When the extremities begin to suffer from the lack of circulation, the blood vessels dilate and the blood comes rushing back to prevent damage to the skin. This explains why swimmers can emerge as red as a beetroot from a particularly long, cold swim.

The truth is, nothing gets the heart pumping quite like a cold dip (except perhaps for sex!). Just look at those beatific smiles after a swim! But think twice before throwing caution, and clothes, to the winds because jumping in to very cold water can take your breath away and make the heart skip a beat. Winter swimmers tend to splash themselves with water before going in and often enter the water slowly (a particularly exquisite form of torture). Once you get over the shock, cold water can become disarmingly comfortable. Water saps body heat much faster than air, and if you stay in too long this can lead to the early stages of hypothermia. If the body's core temperature falls by just 1ºC, reactions are slowed and judgement impaired; so it is important to be moderate in your winter swimming habits and wear a bathing cap. You lose most of your body heat through the head and the nerve endings on the scalp are very sensitive, so putting your head under in icy water can be quite painful, like putting your head in a vice and tightening it.

Warming the Heart

But, if one is sensible, the cold dip is the perfect antidote to our increasingly frenetic and mechanized lifestyle. And it's not just about the body but also about the community that exists around these 'bathing ponds', as Tooting Bec Lido was originally described. Every Sunday, members of the South London Swimming Club,[6] who are proud that they 'swim for fun not for medals', meet for a handicap race. This practice has been going since 1908 and is remarkable for the way that the Right Honourable Handicapper manipulates start times so that the fastest and the slowest touch the end together. After the race there is coffee and home-made cakes and a lot of leg-pulling. On winter days and birthdays, there's also a shot of something a bit stronger.

Which brings us back to Bob Fitch. He too was a 'shot of stronger stuff'. In later years, when poor health overtook him, he continued to take his early morning swim at the Lido, believing that the discipline and sense of well-being generated by this daily ritual had done more to keep him going than any medication could. When he died, the Club felt keenly for Doreen, his wife of 57 years, but took solace in the fact that Bob would probably have wanted it that way. He picked up the practice of winter swimming in 1929 when he was just 11, and kept at it for the next 72 years. "What a perfect way for Bob to go" was the thought in many of the swimmers' minds. For them, the early morning swim is not just a cure for the common cold, it's also the way to a warm heart!
(c) Jonathan Buckley

References

1. Ashcroft Frances. Life at the Extremes - The Science of Survival. HarperCollins. ISBN 0002559463. 2000.
2. Heikura Pasi, Kinnunen Taina and Huttenen Pirkko. Ice Ecstasy.
3. Visit website at www.womannova.com
4. Visit website at www.healthlibrary.com
5. Visit website at www.efit.com
6. Visit website at www.slsc.org

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About Jonathan Buckley

Jonathan Buckley is married with two children and earns his money in a large international PR consultancy. He believes that over the last 15 years, Tooting Bec Lido has played an important part in helping him maintain his sanity. It offers a wonderful combination of meditation, nature and community that is so often missing from urban life. Every now and then he does get a cold but that doesn't matter so much when you're surrounded by so many warm hearts.

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