When temperatures drop, the last thing on most people's minds is to go outside, strip off and take a plunge into near freezing water. That is, however, what a large percentage of the Danish population do each winter. Why on earth would someone choose to do this? Well, it turns out that the benefits are pretty convincing.SpotifyApple Podcasts
Bathing in 11 Degrees? That’s for beginners. At least if you are one the numerous Danes that enjoy a dip in the near-freezing ocean from October to April.
As soon as the winter bathing season starts, you see Danes stripping off, swimming in the sea and getting excited with each degree less in the water. The temperature can get as cold as 2 °C. No surprise that most winter bathers combine swimming with a stay in the sauna.
Why? Because it is a healthy, refreshing, even social activity. And it makes you happy.
In this episode, we try to find out what is so Danish about it and if there is something in the Viking heritage that explains the madness.
After reading you are ready to give it a try. Or at least you understand why the Danes love winter bathing – and even founded clubs around it...
Winter bathing is a popular phenomenon in Denmark with a huge history. But what does it exactly mean? It is quite easy: people go to the beach, dress up and dip into the cold water – either in swimwear or naked. Usually they stay in the water for 20 to 40 seconds. A lot of them are standing still, others take a little swim.
Afterwards they either dress up again or go into the sauna to heat up. Mostly there is at least one sauna at a winter bathing hotspot, provided by the commune or an association. You can see people in towels standing at the sea bridge – if there is one – breathing, looking at the ocean or doing some push ups (seriously!) and after a couple of minutes, they go into the water again. Others are done after the first cold bath.
Sam admits that he was confused by the name “winter bathing”, because “bathing” sounds so relaxing.
Looking into Josefines face – a Dane that refuses to even touch the cold water – winter bathing has nothing to do with calming down or even joy.
But if you watch winterbathers, they do look relaxed.
"I saw so many smiling faces at the beach after their cold dip. They immediately get calm after they enter the water. I wanted to feel that, too. So I tried. And to me, it is a beautifully calm experience. But to be honest: not the first time. That was more yelling and making strange noises to deal with the freaking cold water", says Saskia.
Time to talk with an experienced winter bather. Helle Gollers, a yoga teacher and online marketing expert based in Vejle, uses winter bathing to reconnect with herself and nature every Monday for two years. The 36 years old Dane describes:
"I feel refreshed and more focused, more balanced. All the stress, the thoughts and all the worrying are just washed away. You cannot think about anything else than being right there in the moment with your breathing. That is really powerful to me."
Helle was sceptical, how her body would react to the cold water. She expected to freeze. But to her surprise, when she got out, something completely different happened. Since then, she goes winter bathing two to three times a week and admits: she needs the cold!
After three minutes, my body went warm. And my skin was just so alive! It was tingling all over my body – in a good way. That is how I figured out, this is something for me." (Helle)
To get an understanding of the popularity of winter swimming in Denmark, we have to look to the medical benefits. And there are a lot!
In general winter bathers catch less cold than non winter swimmers. And thank to many studies all over the world, there are valuable reasons for winter bathing:
Isn't that tempting? Who doesn’t want a better metabolism and younger skin?!
So is it like an “happiness boot camp”? Somehow. In fact, the cold water gives your body a shock that leads to an enormous endorphin kick. That explains the smiling after the winter bathing.
An icy dip releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, serotonin, cortisol and dopamine, which gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Many studies have identified the link between cold water and stress reduction. Cold water swimmers become calmer and more relaxed. Studies confirm that it improves mental health. In the long term, your memory skills improve and you sleep better.
Jørgen Hedevan, based in Aalborg, chairman of the Danish Winter Bathing Association and a winter bather for 12 years, points out:
"I don’t feel any stress since I am winter bathing." (Jørgen Hedevan)
If you think about the dark winter period, it is understandable, whay Danes would use winter bathing to cope with the lack of sunlight. Denmark can be really miserable from November to April. A lot of people suffer from mild winter depression.
"It is seen to boost your mood during the long, dark winter." (Josefine)
So it really makes you happy? When asking Mette BL Thomsen, the first Danish ice-swimming champion, it is a straigt yes. The 60 years old nurse goes ice-swimming every morning and introduces herself with “I love life”.
"If you are in a bad mood or angry, it just events this out. You can not be depressed. You can not be unhappy. At least you can get reasons to be happy and more happy. It’s wonderful!" (Mette)
The Danes have been throwing themselves into cold water on dark days since the end of the 19th century. The sea is never far away in Denmark. Nowadays, the coastline gives you 8.700 km of opportunities to discover facilities at the beaches like saunas and changing areas.
Josefine remembers that her grandfather was also an enthusiastic winter bather.
"We are doing it for generations!" (Josefine)
Is it because of the deep connection to the water? Other nations like Sweden or Australia do it, too. So, why are the Danes so into it?
“I think there is this Viking thing deep down in our brain, in our history, in the DNA of a Dane. That we’re connected to water and boats”, the ice-swimming Mette explains.
Fun fact: bathing in cold water is also called Viking swimming in Denmark. A lot of clubs associate themselves to Viking history and put that in their name, like the “AalborgVikingeklubben Isbjørnen”, where Jørgen is a member. He explains also the common tradition of the Viking baptism after two years of winter bathing. That means, you get a Viking name.
“We dress up with something we believe was kind of close to what Vikings were wearing. It is a very heavy scenario”, Jørgen explains whilst laughing.
The first winter bathing establishment was founded in Copenhagen 1913: Helgoland Badeanstalt on Amager. Nowadays, there are around 170 winter bathing clubs with over 61.000 members and long long waiting lists. Why? Because as a member you get unlimited access to the sauna. Besides, the Danes love their clubs. There are associations for everything.
"It is more about being a part of a society for me, People are connected, like friends, like couples." (Jørgen, who meets his clubfellows every saturday for swimming and breakfast)
There is another thing called ice-swimming.
The former Danish ice-swimming champion Mette was the first Dane who attended a world championship in ice swimming. In 2014 in Finland she swam 450 meters in minus one cold water. She won a bronze medal and never stopped loving to swim in ice water.
Now she wants to establish ice swimming as a national sport in Denmark. Why? Because it is for everyone, it’s simple and wonderful.
"No matter what age you are, from where you are from and what language you speak: you can do it!" (Mette)
Sam shares, how he convinces himself to go winter bathing:
"If I make the decision to go, then there are no excuses. I remind me of the good feeling afterwards." (Sam)
Tips for beginners:
Summing up the episode:
We’d love to hear about your experience with winter bathing. Head over to our Instagram feed where you can read what others have to say, as well as letting us know what you think.