The pleasure of swimming: how getting into the water can improve physical and mental health

Even leisurely swimming can burn more than 400 calories per hour, more than double that of walking.

The comparatively low impact of water activities compared to running makes them perfect outings for those with minor injuries, as well as the elderly.

And it’s not just short-term gains, there are lasting benefits to swimming, too.

Regular swimmers have a 28% lower risk of premature death and a 41% lower risk of death from heart disease and stroke, according to a report by the Swim England Swimming and Health Commission in 2017.

calm waters

While the physical benefits of swimming are widely documented, the mental health benefits of getting in the water are less well known, but just as impactful.

In 2019, almost half a million Britons living with mental health diagnoses said swimming had reduced the number of visits to a medical health professional, according to swim england.

Open water swimming in particular, with its naturally cooler temperatures, is increasingly understood to have mental health benefits.

A woman swims to cool off in Lake Xhemas, a small natural lake located in Valbona National Park near Dragobi, on August 4, 2021.

For those willing to brave the cold, dopamine, the feel-good hormone, is released upon submersion in cold water, ensuring an endorphin rush that can last for hours after drying off.

Research into the anti-inflammatory properties of cold water by the University of Portsmouth in the UK has garnered a growing body of anecdotal evidence which can dampen the inflammatory responses that cause anxiety and depression.

Simply being in the so-called “blue environment,” near the ocean or a body of water, is known to reduce stress responses.

Writing for CNN last summerfrontline worker Dr. Mark Lieber reflected on the transformative impact of even brief dips in the pool to help ease the weight of the previous year, literally and figuratively.

“My first thought as I dove below the surface of the water was that I was feeling a little more optimistic than usual, probably due to the extra pounds brought on by the quarantine,” Lieber said.

“But as I continued to slide through the water, my initial concern about gaining weight was replaced by a feeling of catharsis, as if the water was cleansing me of the stress that had built up during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Race after drive, I could feel my mood lift, my mind clear and my body loosen up.”

‘Epiphany moment’

Rachel Ashe, founder of mental health swimmingis a living testament to the positive mental impact of open water swimming.

Based in the UK, Mental Health Swims is a volunteer-run peer support community that organizes open water swims across the UK.

Having received her mental health diagnosis in 2018, Ashe initially took up running but lost confidence after some terrifying slips on the ice over the winter.

By the end of the year, she was feeling “really bad” and “everything was a challenge,” however, on New Year’s Day, Ashe was literally plunged into a new future.

Braving the ‘Loony Dook’, an annual event in which intrepid participants plunge into the icy waters near Edinburgh, Scotland, Ashe returned to the beach shivering but changed.

“It was very painful and I didn’t enjoy it,” Ashe said. CNN Sport“But the very strange feeling of connection to my body after living unhappily in my poor mind for so long was a true epiphany moment for me.”
A New Year's Day swim meet with Mental Health Swims at Caswell Bay in Swansea, Wales.

Six months later, 30 people joined Ashe for a swim meet and the group’s growth has been exponential ever since, even during the pandemic.

This year, Mental Health Swims will host more than 80 swim meets, from Cornwall in the South West of England to Loch Lomond in Scotland, led by trained volunteer swim hosts with an emphasis on inclusion and peer support.

The reasons for joining vary. For some, it’s the sense of community, while others seek mindfulness and that post-swim rush of endorphins.

Ashe loves the water as a safe alternative to the more intimidating environment of the gym, a passion that has breathed new life into her mental health.

“I’ve learned that my differences are a strength and not something to be ashamed of,” Ashe said. “I never thought I could do the things I do today.

“I will always have a mental illness, but I take much better care of myself these days. I still have great feelings, but with medication, therapy, outdoor swimming, and healthy, happy relationships, I’m doing just fine.”

Mental Health Swims has gone from strength to strength since its founding in 2019.


Few people are better equipped to discuss the physical and mental health benefits of swimming than Sarah Waters, who lives in the coastal county of Cornwall.

Waters, diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis during her time in college, has lived with symptoms of the chronic inflammatory disease for more than a decade.

Aggressive treatments and medication proved enormously exhausting, and after returning from traveling and working in Australia, a lump on her neck turned out to be skin cancer.

The physical and emotional toll of cancer removal operations and changing treatments were compounded by the need to protect themselves during the pandemic, but Waters’ luck took a turn when, after a little push from her mother, she took up swimming. at sea.

Waters started swimming during the pandemic.

“He started going and kept saying, ‘You have to go in, it really helps with your mental health,'” Waters told CNN.

“When you go out, you feel a bit of a rush, almost like you’ve been woken up somehow. I know it sounds really weird, but it definitely gives you that tingling feeling that you’ve accomplished something that you never thought you’d be able to do before” .

And so began a stubborn commitment, even through the winter, to swimming two or three times a week, sometimes the only way for Waters to get out of the house due to protective requirements.

Since his first adventure on the seas with his mother, Waters has never looked back.
From relieving muscle stiffness and increasing joint flexibility, swimming has a number of physical improvements for people with arthritis, according to the charity. against arthritisfor whom Waters has written.

For Waters, these physical boosts dovetail with mental health benefits.

“You always have that feeling of fear, right before you’re like, ‘Can you do it?'” Waters said.

Meet the black women fighting for equality in swimming

“But I do and then it’s a sense of accomplishment in a way, for your physical and mental well-being, it definitely does something.

“With all the meds, you can feel pretty fatigued most of the time; when you have a day off, you’re so tired you feel like you don’t have the energy to do it – but once you’ve done it, it revitalizes you.

“Once it starts to improve your symptoms of anxiety or depression, it can give you physical benefits as well.”

After swimming for the first time in more than a year, Dr. Lieber was looking forward to the start of a four-night stretch working in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

“Usually I dread the first of these night shifts,” he said. “But somehow the task seemed more manageable than usual.

“Whatever happens tonight will happen. Whatever happens, there will always be tomorrow.”

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