From Niche to Mainstream: Winter Swimming Is Gaining Popularity

Michaela-Františka Kárná, Rebekah Austring

Winter swimming has been practised in Nordic countries for centuries but gained more popularity worldwide since the pandemic, as people spend more time outside and seek new methods to relieve stress or improve their immune systems.

Jon Shelton and Michelle O’Regan enjoying their second Nordic dip of the day in Kalvebod Brygge, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by: Michaela-Františka Kárná

Winter bathing is a Nordic tradition where people plunge into icy waters during the winter months. This practice is not only a test of resilience against the biting Scandinavian cold but also a beloved social and cultural ritual.

Winter swimming has long been tied with sauna culture. Denmark has a long history of winter swimming, but a relatively recent custom is mixing it with a sauna.

Ice swimming, on the other hand, has long been popular in Estonia and Finland, and Finns are particularly well-known for their great sauna traditions. Up to now, the popularity of going to a sauna in Finland is unparalleled.

Michelle O’Regan, winter swimming enthousiast from the United Kingdom, said that the pandemic was her reason to begin winter bathing as well. “I started during lockdown because all the indoor pools were closed, so I just had to go outside to swim,” she said.

“Perhaps a niche activity some years ago, during the last few years winter swimming has grown to become almost mainstream,” reported Dr Susanna Soeberg, author of Winter Swimming: The Nordic Way Toward a Healthier and Happier Life, and an expert on cold and heat therapy.

Vacation Must Have: Cold Water

Jon Shelton, also a winter bathing enthousiast from the UK, noticed the amount of people interested in the activity has increased dramatically lately. “I don’t really do it in the warmer months, it gets too crowded,” he said.

Michelle and Jon are both English, and they started their winter swimming journeys in their homeland, but they both said they love it so much that it has become something they look for while travelling.

“I became addicted to it. So now I choose my holidays based on places where I can do the Nordic dips,” Jon says. He even confesses he prefers bathing in cold water to warm water. “I still enjoy going to the beach in the summer but cold water is my favourite now,” he added.

It is one of the reasons they came to Denmark. “I love that we can do it for free here. Back at home, we have to pay for harbour baths. It can be up to 11 GBP (18,7 CAD) for one visit, so this is really convenient,” said Michelle.

To cut down the expenses, Jon became a member of a London winter bathing club. He pays a yearly membership to be able to use the baths several times a week.

The Health Benefits

Dr Soeberg has conducted several research studies on the effects of winter bathing. They usually involve non-winter swimmers who try the practice for a few months.

“Our subjects with chronic pain claimed the water reduced their discomfort, while those without pain reported increased happiness, better health and sleep, and reduced stress,” she said.

“I definitely do it for the mental health benefits. The results are amazing,” Jon confirmed. “The worst part is getting undressed in the cold. Once you’re in the water it’s great,” he added.

Winter swimmers, both beginners and pros, say that dipping into icy waters helps them forget their worries and live in the moment. As they step into the cold, they feel deeply connected with the world around them, and their problems seem to fade away.

The shock of the cold water grabs all their attention, tricking the brain into thinking it’s a do-or-die situation. But this intense moment acts as a reset button, giving the mind a burst of energy.

“The positive energy is most likely due to an increase of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. These control mood and mental balance,” Dr Soeberg explained. She said the results of winter bathing could be compared to the effect of antidepressants.

“The outcome is an increased inner power that can be used in self-development and channelled into all kinds of other activities,” concluded Dr Soeberg.

Kalvebod Brygge is a popular spot for Nordic dipping in Copenhagen, as it has both the swimming area and a small sauna. Photo by: Michaela-Františka Kárná