March 2, 2009

Ice Bathing: A Finnish Past Time, Health Ritual

In Finland, some locals are touting the health benefits of ice bathing.

Although it may seem like the perfect activity to trigger illness, many Finns say bathing in local frozen lakes is beneficial for body and mind.

"It cleanses the mind and helps me leave work stuff behind," Martti Salonen, 58, told AFP near the just above freezing Vuoksi river.

"It's a hobby that really gets you hooked."

Earlier this month Salonen alongside some 930 people took part in the Finnish winter swimming championships in Imatra. Participants swam 82 feet in water where temperatures reached 0.2 degrees Celsius (32.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Some 2,000 of Finland's 5.3 million inhabitants take part in such competitions. Additionally, about 150,000 Finns take a frosty swim at least a couple of times a year, according to Suomen Latu, an association promoting outdoor activities.

Seventy-year-old Eila Harju took the silver medal in the event by swimming 25 meters in 28.58 seconds.

"I am very competitive. I aimed for silver in the competition and I got it," she said.

"At first it was awful. I felt dizzy, but I got used to it. Now I can swim 100 meters in freezing cold water," Pirkko Mattila, 60, told AFP. She said she has been winter swimming for nearly a decade.

"I will continue with this as long as I live."

"Cold is used to treat pains and inflammations," said Tarja Westerlund, an exercise physiologist who is currently finishing her doctorate thesis on cold treatment of medical conditions.

Westerlund recently worked with a study to show that cold temperatures can actually increase stress hormone levels temporarily, which can alleviate pain. However, there is no evidence that exposure to frigid temperatures can improve immune system function, she added.

"Test subjects were treated in a cold chamber or went winter swimming three times a week for three months. We found that their levels of stress hormone noradrenalin increased significantly, which could explain the pain relief," she said, explaining that the hormone "helps the body adapt to different situations.

Although ice cold water is also a shock to the body it is a relatively safe hobby for people as long as they do not have a heart condition or problems with blood pressure, Westerlund told AFP.

"Winter swimmers said it felt easier to get into the cold water in the second week. They quickly adapted mentally to it," she said.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia