7 Reasons Why Wild Swimming Could Transform Your Physical and Mental Wellbeing
It’s strange how an activity which humans have been plunging themselves into for time immemorial can be described as a “craze,” but this summer huge swathes of the UK population have dipped their collective toe into wild swimming.
Simultaneously summoning misty-eyed visions of sun-dappled mill ponds and the visceral slap of cold water forcefully snatching your breath, wild swimming occupies a curious space. While splashing around like a nymph in a romantic Waterhouse painting has its own magical appeal, the steely resolve needed to endure the cold gives wild swimming an edge.
I personally adore wild swimming for its multifaceted nature. On the surface, it may look like women in swim caps indulging in some leisurely breaststroke, but underneath the water, it truly feels wild. The side of me which lives for challenge helps me to get into the water, but is then subdued and calmed in an immensely pleasing cycle.
It is this mixture of elements which makes wild swimming such a rich salve for both physical and mental health and below are some compelling reasons to take the plunge.
1. A Healthy Dopamine Hit
Immersing the body in cold water packs a heady punch of dopamine, one of the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters.
To grossly oversimplify, dopamine is a part of the brain’s reward system which plays a big role in how we feel pleasure and allows us to focus and find things immersive and interesting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lack of dopamine is linked to a raft of mental health difficulties and unhealthy addictions.
While it’s no magic panacea, a dip in water under 14 degrees centigrade can increase dopamine levels by over 250 percent which can leave us feeling happier and more alert. This wave of dopamine can also induce feelings of elation. I reached out to some swimmers from the SOUP Community - Sheffield OUtdoor Plunger Facebook Group and Frascesca Donovan, 28, echoed this sentiment explaining:
“There is a rare and unique type of euphoria which comes from being immersed in cold water. I haven't experienced a similarly giddy laugh-out-loud joy even on the summits of the most beautiful mountains I've ascended.”
2. Aquatic Ecotherapy
Image credit: Instagram.com/Rogue Ramblers
Being outdoors and connecting with nature has a proven positive impact on mental wellbeing which is incredibly difficult to write about without seeming hopelessly twee, but very easy to feel.
Just like the great romantic poets, we all know that the feeling of awe and connection which a giant gnarled tree or a rippling blanket of ocean can give us is good for the soul.
Rachel Carson, the American Marine Biologist and conservationist summed it up perfectly when she said:
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
While the cold gaze of science can suck the mystique from the healing powers of nature which just are, it has been proven that just being in nature can reduce anger, fear, and stress and increase pleasant feelings. In terms of physical health, existing in wild places can also lower heart rate, blood pressure, muscular tension and stress hormones.
3. Plunging into the Present Moment
Kenwood Ladies' Pond in Hamstead Heath
Image credit: Wikimedia/Peter
Enjoying what we are actually doing without our brain sneaking off to silently churn through endless to-do lists or relive our most embarrassing moment is fiendishly hard — despite how simple the principle is.
As the ancient practice of yoga helpfully demonstrates, using the body in a way that forces us to pay attention is one tactic which can help us to live in the moment. While learning hundreds of difficult asanas is a somewhat elaborate system to allow us to sit still and appreciate just being alive, Wild swimming can provide a helpful shortcut.
Once your body is clasped by the sweet chill of the water and your limbs tentatively brush against slimy underwater things, it’s near impossible to think of anything else for long. Relaxing into and finding calm in your breath after the compulsive hyperventilating which overcomes the body in particularly cold water requires focus and bodily awareness, no matter how experienced you are. This presence in the moment and returning to bodily sensations is the essence of mindfulness.
4. A Sense of Wholesome Community
Young women emerge from an ice cold lake swim
Image credit: Flickr/littlebiglens
While wild swimming as a solitary pursuit has a wealth of benefits, the community element is equally as important.
Feelings of loneliness have been shunted to the fore by the isolation of lockdown and have a detrimental effect on mental health. Being lonely can feed into depression and anxiety, which are conditions which can make us feel more lonely — causing a cycle which can be deeply isolating and hard to break.
Loneliness is a state of mind which can leave us feeling isolated even among a crowd, but wild swimming offers togetherness which is easily accessible by those feeling depressed or anxious. The “doing” nature of wild swimming means people don’t need to talk much or be dazzlingly social to be an important part of the community.
It also helps that wild swimmers are a notoriously friendly and accepting bunch. Wild Swimmer Francesca Donovan explained that:
“In my experience, it is the most inclusive, welcoming and supportive outdoor community. Perhaps that's because there's something in all this cold water therapy that makes you find happiness from within. Once you've found that you'll want to share it with everyone. That's why you should never ask a wild swimmer about wild swimming. They'll talk for hours!”
Helen Frances — who I also spoke to over the SOUP group — echoed this sentiment explaining that wild swimming has:
“Helped me so much socially...also helped a lot with mental health and wellbeing with lockdown”
5. A Diminished Stress Response
A study published in British Medical Journal Case Reports suggests that cold water swimming may be an effective treatment for depression. The theory behind this is that one form of stress – the shock of cold water – adapts the body for another, in this case the stress response associated with depression and anxiety.
Mike Tipton, professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth’s Extreme Environments Laboratory, has conducted research into why cold water-immersion can help us rewire stress responses. He told Cosmopolitan Magazine that:
“When you immerse yourself in cold water, stress hormones like adrenalin and noradrenalin pour out of you, your ventilation goes up, the body needs to activate that ‘fight or flight’ response. With that comes a sense of alertness. You feel alive – just like when you do anything that scares you. You feel like you have defeated death.”
He continues to explain: “We know that if you go into cold water repeatedly, then the stress response decreases each time. We think that there might be some cross-adaptation of common pathways that can diminish the inflammatory response to other stressors.”
This means that coping with overcoming the physical reaction to slipping into cold water may help the body react less extremely to other forms of stress.
In short, your increased heart rate from cold stress feels the same to the body as the increased heart rate caused by anxiety over an impending presentation at work. By learning to regulate cold stress, your body can learn to cope better with other stresses life throws at it.
6. Low-Impact Exercise
Wild swimming is a low-impact, joint friendly exercise which can help lower blood pressure and increase immunity.
All exercise is great for both physical and mental wellbeing, but wild swimming has specific benefits thanks, in part, to the anti-inflammatory powers of cold water explored above. Some of the many physical benefits of cold water swimming are:
- Cold water reduces body pain and inflammation - excellent for arthritis, sports injuries or type 2 diabetes
- Can boost your immune system
- Improves circulation
- Potential weight loss (though not guaranteed) through improved metabolism
- ‘Cold adaptation’ – through repeated cold swimming it is possible to bring down blood pressure and cholesterol
7. Improved Body Image
Focusing more on the amazing things your body can help you achieve and feel can be a great way to improve negative body image.
Wild swimming is well known as being a body positive community, perhaps because being engulfed in the majesty of nature makes a once-loathed ‘bingo wing’ seem positively insignificant. In the words of Francesca Donovan, who also runs the Rogue Ramblers Instagram:
“What keeps me going back to dip again and again is the feeling of personal accomplishment, the quiet peace with one's body, and the clarity that comes with feeling cleansed by water. As someone who has loathed and battled their own body to the point of harming it, the outdoor swimming community has been mind-altering. Other swimmers have taught me to embrace the things I had once resented which wobbled in the "wrong" places. If anything, you're probably better off for having a bit of blubber.”
Indeed, it is scientifically better to have a bit of body fat to enjoy wild swimming, meaning women are better suited for the sport. Tipton explained that:
“Women have more subcutaneous fat than men – about 10% more body fat. This fat sits just under the skin, and it’s the physiological overcoat for the body. It slows down the rate at which your body cools.”
So, statistically women can safely swim in cold water for longer than men like the mermaids we are!
Safety Advice: Before you try wild swimming, please check out the swimming safety tips from The Outdoor Swimming Society or try swimming somewhere with a lifeguard such as the famous Hamstead Heath Kenwood Ladies' Pond.
Cover image credit: Flickr.com/Lanier67