When I was a kid my elementary school had a swimming pool. At the first timid signs of summer we'd clamor around our teacher begging to be allowed to swim. Eventually she'd relent, and we would splash and flail until we were ordered out of the pool.


Blue-tinged, teeth chattering and bodies vibrating with cold, we dragged crumpled clothes over damp skin and raced back to the classroom. Then, the most incredible thing would happen; our entire bodies would be completely suffused with an indescribable glow of warmth and wellbeing.


We didn’t know it, but as with our long-ago forbearers, we’d discovered that hydrotherapy enhances health.


Early civilizations acknowledged the power of water, sacred as a source of life, energy, comfort, fertility and creation. Entire cultures understood its salutary benefits. Ancient Greeks studied the physiologic effects of bathing; Romans had an elaborate bathing culture that emphasized relaxation and pleasure. Throughout the 20th century, Germany, France and other European countries included hydrotherapy as a routine part of medical care. The modern iteration of the spa perpetuates watery indulgence; sauna, steam, ice fountains, hydrotherapy tubs, body scrubs and rain showers, all having their genesis in prehistory.


Our physiology has uniquely adapted over evolutionary eons to respond positively to the stimulus of water in all its forms. That numbing dip in the pool caused a tidal wash of circulatory changes linking us directly with our primordial origins. Surrounding our body with hot or cold water spurs a complex interplay of physiologic responses centered on our internal effort to maintain a state of homeostasis. A cascade of beneficial bodily reactions ensues, including enhanced immune function, increased production of endorphins, basal metabolic rate modulation and a raft of subtle changes in muscle tone, mental outlook and pain perception.


Icy winter temperatures – and maybe the effect of the stress of the season – classically result in an increase in aches and pains in muscles and joints. A warm bath is the perfect antidote; penetrating warmth relieves discomfort by relaxing muscle and connective tissue. Once the warmth has worked its muscle-softening magic, the bathtub is a particularly good place to stretch tight hamstring and calf muscles or perform a gentle yoga-like spinal twist.


To further tame stubborn knots bring a tennis ball to the tub and lie back against it to apply precise pressure to sore areas. This works particularly well for shoulders, lower back, hips and gluteal muscles - and you can use the buoyancy of your body to moderate the pressure that you apply. If high heels or hard surfaces are getting the better of you, you can easily massage the often tight and tender plantar surface of the foot once the warmth of the water has loosened ligaments and tendons in that area.

 

Water therapy especially helps when winter challenges our wellbeing with an onslaught of coughs, colds, sniffles and the flu - all the result of an overwhelmed immune system. German research shows that simplest of hydrotherapy strategies - using contrasting temperatures - strengthens the immune system and lessens the incidence of illness.


Contrasting temperature treatments are easy to implement - simply alternate between hot and cold water during your daily shower. Start out with one cycle, introducing cooler water for 30 seconds towards the end of the shower and heating up again to a comfortable neutral temperature to finish. Over a period of days introduce two or three hot/cold cycles and gradually ramp up the chill factor until you are comfortable with more dramatic temperature changes. Performed religiously, you can expect fewer colds and other illnesses. An added benefit, the refreshing zing of cool water increases mental alertness – which can’t be a bad thing!


Relaxing or reinvigorating, languid lap or chilly bite, water offers a simple way to sustain life in balance. Immerse yourself in its elemental renewal.



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