The Mental Health Benefits of Wild Swimming

‘Wild’ or ‘Open water swimming’, the practice of  enjoying swimming in a natural body of water, has increased in popularity over the last couple of years.  Daniel Start, author of ‘Wild Swimming’ comments that there is “something slightly naughty, a little scary and wonderfully invigorating about leaving your wetsuit at home, and entering open water with just your skin (and perhaps a swimming costume) between you and the elements”. Although for many people, it sounds rather cold and scary in the UK climate, in actual fact, cold water immersion is said to provide a sense of elation and relaxation, which has numerous health benefits, including positive effects on the immune system, on muscle aches and pains and on mental health issues. This isn’t an entirely new idea – Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin, for example, both extolled the virtues and benefits of immersing themselves in cold water baths.

There are practicalities around acclimatising yourself to cold water swimming and you do, of course, need to take some advice before beginning a new exercise regime. There are also certain precautions you should take in terms of safety factors, and swimming with a established ‘wild swimming’ group in a safe area is always recommended.  Those caveats aside, there are several ways that the activity will hugely benefit your emotional, as well as your physical health:

1.    It is a feel-good activity, helping to stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s very own anti-depressants. Several studies have linked cold water immersion and by implication, wild swimming, to the release of several chemicals including dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline and beta-endorphin. These are natural mood enhancers and many wild swimmers feel invigorated, positive and happy after an outdoor swim.

2.    Being in nature helps us to get things into perspective. When faced with the beauty of a lake or river, bathed in green, surrounded by trees, with the sounds of birds in the background, it is difficult not to feel humbled by the sheer immensity of our natural world.  Being in nature can be an assault on the senses and it helps us to feel calm and positive about our own issues, and give us the mind space to quietly reflect on our lives, without the usual backdrop of traffic noise and busy streets.

3.    It helps us to be mindful, focusing on the here and now. Experiencing cold water immersion and swimming in general  means that you need to be aware of your breathing, and physical reactions, as well as where you are in relation to your surroundings and the others around you. Your attention needs to be focused on what is happening right now and you become more finely attuned to the rhythms of your own body. This is particularly relevant in cold water swimming as you will need to take some advice on acclimatising to the cold in a safe way.

4.    It helps to reduce inflammation in the body. Whether we are suffering from a virus or from stress, the response from our immune system is inflammation. This isn’t necessarily a problem in the short term but prolonged inflammation exacerbates depressive symptoms. The first study to investigate the effectiveness of cold water swimming on depression was led by Dr Chris Van Tulleken of University College London and Professor Mike Tipton and Dr Heather Massey, both of the University of Portsmouth. They followed a case study of a young woman called Sarah, who suffered with major depressive disorder and anxiety and who had been on medication since she was 17. As a result of cold water, open swimming Sarah’s depression eased considerably and she was eventually able to give up all medication. Whilst this is just one study, it has very promising results, which many people attest to in terms of the general positive effects on their mental health.

5.    Lastly, there is the element of determination and achievement, which always has a positive effect on our demeanor. Starting and maintaining any exercise programme, particularly one which is challenging both physically and mentally, as open water swimming is, makes us feel really good about ourselves.

There are lots of benefits to open water swimming – swimming alone has many health benefits and exercise in general has a very positive effect on both physical and mental health. If you are embarking on a new exercise regime, always remember to do so with due caution with regards to your current levels of fitness and to the particular exercise that you are participating in.

Best of luck!