Have you ever experienced the thrill of a dip in the sea, a lake or a river and felt that surge of energy? Maybe you’re already a regular sea swimmer (no matter the time of year) and need no convincing of its mental health benefits? If so, you’re not alone. So-called “wild” swimming – the act of swimming outdoors in a place where nature is all around you – is growing in popularity all over the UK.
There’s even a national Outdoor Swimming Society which was established back in 2006 and, at the last count, had 175,000 members. “We represent the interests of all the different kinds of outdoor swimmers by providing inspiration, connection and a sense of community and inclusivity,” says one of its ‘key aims’. The Society’s founder summarises the main attraction thus: “Wild swimming costs nothing and is a great mood changer. There’s no experience like it and every time is different.”
Fortunately, we are lucky to have an abundance of natural bodies of water in this country, as well as long stretches of coastline, so you should never find yourself too far from the nearest wild swimming spot.
And if you don’t live near the sea or open water, there’s also the option of installing a natural swimming pool at home. As one pool expert explains, “If you love that feeling of diving into a lake or river, allowing natural water to swirl all around you, natural pools are designed to offer a similar experience and the opportunity to swim outdoors in water that is free from large quantities of chemicals, such as chlorine, and does not damage the environment.”
What’s the scientific evidence?
The perceived rise in natural swimming is about more than being at one with Mother Nature, though that is an obvious attraction and probably the main reason to give wild swimming a go in the first place. But many wild swimmers also report that they feel healthier, happier and more energised as a result of their outdoor swimming hobby.
Numerous scientific studies back this up. A 2017 study carried out by Professor Mike Tipton of Portsmouth University highlights the health benefits and risks of cold water swimming and immersion, especially in terms of immunity and inflammation. Another study from the same university investigated outdoor swimmers’ perceptions of their health and the impact of swimming on their symptoms, finding improvements in cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and mental health conditions.
Then there was the joint study led by Associate Professor, Chris van Tulleken (University College London), Professor Mike Tipton and Dr Heather Massey (University of Portsmouth) examining the effectiveness of cold water swimming to combat depression, concluding that it may be an effective treatment. A current study by the University of Portsmouth and the Sussex Partnership NHS Trust is further examining the impact of outdoor swimming on depression.
In a review published in 2020 by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, led by Professor Beat Knechtle, more than 20 different practical and clinical studies are acknowledged that demonstrate a wealth of benefits from cold water swimming. The list includes improvements in blood and hormone functions, respiration and mood.
Let’s recap the main mental health benefits below.
It has long been known that wild swimming has powerfully mood-boosting properties, with plenty of scientific research to provide evidence. Experts say that plunging into cold water on a regular basis is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety while promoting the release of serotonin and dopamine, better known as the “happy” hormones. “All wild-dippers know, it’s the natural endorphins that raise mood, elate the senses and create an addictive urge to dive back in,” says Daniel Start, author of the book Wild Swimming.
Other studies have suggested that cold water swimming lowers inflammation in the body which, in turn, is linked to a wide range of issues including aches and pains, high blood pressure, arthritis and depression. The reason is something called “cold water adaptation”, a process that occurs with regular cold water swimming. Dr Mark Harper, the consultant anaesthetist at Brighton & Sussex Hospitals and an enthusiastic wild swimmer himself, explains as follows: “By adapting to cold stress, your response to that cold stress becomes less marked, and we think this adaptation may help with high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and arthritis, reducing inflammation in the body.”
We know that too much cortisol, the stress hormone, can have a negative effect on our health which, in turn, can result in poor sleep, digestive issues and anxiety. It is therefore important to control the release of cortisol, and natural swimming is an excellent way to help achieve this. Due to the cold water adaptation process mentioned above. According to medical experts, when you train your body to cope with shock, discomfort and pain through repeated cold water immersion, you equip the body to handle smaller stresses more easily. In other words, taking regular dips in cold water lowers the stress reaction and reduces cortisol levels in the body.
Swimming in cold water surrounded by nature makes you live “at the moment”. You feel the water on your skin as you move through the water, focusing on your breathing. Akin to mindfulness, nothing else matters more than what is going on in the here and now; you are completely disconnected from the busyness of life. Experts say that spending two hours a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being. Kate Rew from the Outdoor Swimming Society agrees: “Modern life just drifts away from you. All the deadlines and worries that come from being a social human being just become utterly irrelevant. It’s just you and swimming.”
The vast majority of wild swimmers are convinced that swimming boosts their energy, alleviates many ailments and enhances their overall physical health and mental well-being. While the research may be ongoing, the emerging scientific data appears to confirm what many natural swimmers already know: taking up wild swimming on a regular basis is one of the best things you can do for a healthy body and mind.
Adam Mulligan did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.