Several videos depicting Russian children running around in swimsuits and playing with snow and buckets of water have gone viral, because of social media users curious to see what Those Crazy Russians are doing now. But is it really crazy? Or, are Western parents the crazy ones for wrapping their children in cotton wool?
Olesya, head of Kindergarten Number 168 in Barnul, south Siberia, says that accusations of cruelty are entirely wrong. About 18 years before she was interviewed for this 2012 article, she and other teachers were concerned about their students' health. Influenza was common, and at times half of the children were sick. Now, much of these illnesses are prevented by children first doing exercises inside with their teacher, and then spending a minute and a half scrubbing themselves and playing with snowballs and buckets of water. It is said that in general, 95% of the children who participate in this are healthy during the flu season, compared to 75% among those who don't. The "dousing" goes on all year round, summer (which can reach temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius) and winter, unless it gets below -30C.
But is there any research to back this all up? Well, yes; for example, this small study suggests that swimming in cold water may "toughen" the body. Ten healthy people who regularly participate in winter swimming were found to have higher levels of glutathione, the "master" antioxidant, than usual. This may be because of mild, acute oxidative stress caused by the cold water exposure. In another study on winter swimmers, the swimmers had higher levels of glutathione, and lower levels of oxidized glutathione compared to healthy controls. This time, there were 36 winter swimmers and 40 "normal people" (but who wants to be normal?) The winter swimmers also had much higher levels of the antioxidant enzymes catalase and superoxide dismutase. Interestingly, their levels of non-oxidized glutathione, vitamin C and uric acid, which are all antioxidants, dropped significantly during swimming. All of this could mean that the stress caused by swimming in cold water triggers the body to produce more of its own antioxidants, in order to protect itself from damage. In fact, previous research found that winter swimmers suffered 40% fewer upper respiratory infections, validating Olesya's observations. On the other hand, if left alone, levels of antioxidant enzymes fall with age. In conclusion, perhaps a cold shower or swim could be the best "flu shot" for you, but if you have any cardiovascular or other chronic health issues, it is best to see your doctor first.