The naked truth: One Englishman’s unlikely love affair with Swedish saunas (followed by plunging into VERY cold water)

  • After moving to Sweden David Brain discovered the benefits of saunas
  • He also realised that a sauna followed by a cold water plunge has health benefits
  • Here the ex-Chris Evans radio show producer reveals more on this hot topic
  • READ MORE: Inside one of the top 10 places to eat in the UK

David after a plunge in frigid waters

I am very English. I am addicted to roast potatoes, frequently say ‘oopsie daisy’ without irony, genuinely enjoy lager and believe that any communal nudity is a sure-fire way to cement the collapse of civilisation.

Yet here I am, wearing nothing but a pair of flip-flops in a room surrounded by other men in similar lack of attire. I’ve only been here for a matter of minutes and already several sweat-drenched bottoms have ambled slowly past my face or brushed accidentally against my arm.

The door to this particular sauna swings open and in walks a naked, elderly Swedish man named Kalle.

‘God morgon allihopa!’ (Good morning everyone) he says to the group of other naked elderly Swedish men all sitting very close together. He peers theatrically at the wall, looking closely at the thermometer. I’m sitting next to it (naked, of course) and have a peek. It was pushing ninety-five degrees Centigrade.

‘Det ar kallt har inne idag. Ska jag hamta nagra trojor?’ Kalle asked the room. His question is met with chuckles and various gurglings of agreement. Loosely translated, he said it was cold in here and he should go and get some jumpers for everyone.

Little did I know, but I’d stumbled into a sauna filled with a hardcore group of Swedish winter bathers. This group of pensionable gentlemen come to Kallbadhuset on Ribersborg beach in Malmo, Sweden, almost every day. They strip off, sit in a sauna for fifteen minutes then walk outside onto the pier and jump into the ocean. They repeat this process over and over again.

This is the Baltic Sea and you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s cold. By cold I mean that when it freezes over, which it does frequently in winter, it doesn’t stop them. They simply cut a hole in the ice and dip their nude bottoms in with slightly more caution. But not much.

I’ve recently moved to Sweden with my wife and two children so I’m new to the country, the culture and the phenomenon of winter bathing. The first time I cycled to the beach in the freezing cold and wandered up the pier with a towel, flip-flops and zero swimming trunks in my backpack I was more motivated by having a funny story to tell about those ‘crazy Swedes’. What I’ve found is a health-improving, mood-enhancing high from nature’s very own supply.

There are numerous podcasts, books and articles about the health benefits of cold water therapy, but to put it simply: getting very hot then very cold then very hot then very cold triggers lymphatic circulation, which has a detoxifying effect on the body. The heat of the sauna decreases muscle soreness and the cold helps any joint ailments you might have. It’s also proven to increase immunity, decrease symptoms of stress and improve the quality of your skin.

David jumps naked into a Swedish lake. He says: ‘The sauna and cold plunge routine has become an exercise in sweaty and bone-chilling mindfulness’

However, if you have a heart condition, the shock can also kill you. So think about it carefully before wantonly jumping to an icy death.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the church of cold water is brand new and high priest Wim Hof its visionary pioneer. But it’s not. It goes way back to at least the fifth century BC; even Wim knows that. The ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all regularly took cold baths and, as saunas crept into those cultures, a movement was born. Centuries later the Scandinavians adopted it.

The health benefits are clear, but for me a few psychological wins have also crept up.

One in particular is the rather liberating realisation that the human body is so very weird. Scratch from your mind almost every crafted and curated image you’ve ever seen on your phone. We are all lumpy and oddly shaped. Some people have hair in places others don’t. Some people have broad powerful shoulders but really weird-looking feet. Some people have no shoulders to speak of but incredible jawlines – and for all people it simply does not matter.

In his new series exploring health and longevity, ‘Limitless’, the comically handsome actor Chris Hemsworth spends an entire episode exploring the benefits of sauna and cold water exposure. If you can avoid being hypnotised by his beauty, it’s an insightful, interesting watch. However, Chris is an outlier in that it’s his job to look like a mythical superhero. Everyone else is just as wobbly and awkward as you and I.

Icy waters on Malmo’s coast, with the famous Turning Torso skyscraper in the background

In sitting at the back of a sauna filled with relative strangers I’ve found something that has eluded me for many years. Torn between two young children, a wife and a demanding former job with weird hours, I always felt like I was trying to catch up with my own life. Time was something I chased but was never in possession of.

In the sauna, the only way of keeping track of time is by looking at the 15-minute hourglass on the wall and remembering what position it was in when you sat down.

Eventually, you start to ignore that and go with how you feel. When that happens, you start to stop. At risk of reading like a pithy Instagram post, when you start to stop – wonderful things happen.

In essence, the sauna and cold plunge routine has become an exercise in sweaty and bone-chilling mindfulness. I am present, correct and stripped of life’s stresses and strains.

One of the many piers on Ribersborg Beach, Malmo

I’m also stripped of anything resembling an item of clothing, which brings us back to the sauna, me, Kalle and my new old friends. I can speak some Swedish but am still very much learning. I struggle to keep up with their conversation but communication isn’t just verbal. As I sit there, I get an overwhelming sense of community, camaraderie and calm from these gnarly sauna war dogs.

I stare out of the window at The Baltic Sea, sweat dripping off the end of my nose with thoughts of my imminent ocean plunge wandering calmly through my mind. I catch the eye of Kalle. He smiles at me and nods.

It was either a knowing nod to a peer or smug acknowledgement for his joke about getting jumpers for everyone. Either way, I enjoyed it very much.

  • David is Chris Evans’ former radio producer and currently creative director at Follow him on Instagram here.

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