The joy of swimming: how getting in the water can improve physical and mental health

The joy of swimming: how getting in the water can improve physical and mental health

(CNN) — As we enter the boreal summer and temperatures rise, more and more of us are taking to the water in search of a range of benefits for body and soul.

Don’t like to run? Swimming can be not only a good alternative, but a more effective one.

Using all your muscles, swimming provides a full body workout and as such, 30 minutes of exercise in the water equals 45 minutes on land, according to Swim England.

Even a leisurely swim session can burn over 400 calories per hour, more than twice as much as walking.

The low impact of water activities, unlike running, makes it the ideal choice for people with minor injuries, as well as the elderly.

And it’s not just short-term benefits, swimming has long-lasting benefits too.

According to a 2017 Swim England Swimming and Health Commission report, regular swimmers have a 28% risk of premature death and a 41% lower risk of death from heart disease and stroke.

calm waters

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

In 2019, nearly half a million Britons living with mental health diagnoses said swimming reduced visits to a healthcare professional, according to Swim England.

Open water swimming in particular, with its naturally cooler temperatures, is increasingly seen to have a beneficial effect on mental health.

swimming mental health

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

Dopamine, the feel-good hormone, is released upon soaking in cold water, providing an endorphin rush that can last for hours after drying off.

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

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

In an article published on CNN last summer, Dr. Mark Lieber reflected on the transformative impact of brief dips in the pool to help lift the weight of the previous year, literally and figuratively.

“My first thought when diving into the water was that I felt a little more buoyant than usual, probably due to the extra pounds from my 40s,” Lieber said.

“But as I continued to sink in the water, my initial concern about weight gain was replaced by a feeling of catharsis, as if the water was cleansing me of the stress accumulated during the coronavirus pandemic.”

“Stroke after stroke, I could feel my mood improving, my mind clearing and my body relaxing.”

An “epiphanic moment”

Rachel Ashe, founder of Mental Health Swims, is a living testament to the positive mental impact of open water swimming.

Mental Health Swims is a volunteer-run peer support community running open water encounters across the UK.

After being diagnosed with mental health in 2018, Ashe initially took up running, but lost her confidence after some terrifying slips on ice during the winter.

At the end of the year, she felt “really bad” and “everything was difficult”, but on New Year’s Day, Ashe literally embarked on a new future.

Ashe has accepted the challenge of the ‘Loony Dook’, an annual event in which intrepid participants take to 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 told CNN Sport, “but the strange feeling of connection to my body after living so long in my poor unhappy mind was a real heartbreaking moment. epiphany for me.”

Swansea Swimming Challenge

A New Year’s 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 since, even during the pandemic.

This year, Mental Health Swims will host over 80 swim meets, from Cornwall in the South West of England to Loch Lomond in Scotland, led by trained volunteer hosts, with a focus on inclusion and support by peers.

Reasons for signing up vary. For some, it’s the sense of community, while others crave mindfulness and that post-swim endorphin rush.

Ashe loves the water as a safe alternative to the more intimidating environment of the gym, a passion that has given her mental health a boost.

“I’ve learned that my differences are a strength, not a shame,” Ashe says. “I never thought I could do the things I do today.”

“I will always have a mental illness, but these days I take better care of myself. I still have good feelings, but with medication, therapy, outdoor swimming and healthy, happy relationships, I am very well.”

Swims for Mental Health

Mental Health Swims has grown since its inception in 2019.


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

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis while in college, Waters has lived with the symptoms of the chronic inflammatory disease for more than a decade.

The aggressive treatments and medications were very exhausting, and after he returned from traveling and working in Australia, it turned out that a lump on his neck was actually skin cancer.

The physical and emotional toll of cancer surgeries and treatment has been compounded by the need to protect herself during the pandemic, but Waters’ luck turned when, after a little nudge from her mother, she started swimming in the sea.

benefits of swimming

The waters have started to swim during the pandemic.

“He started going there and kept saying, ‘You need to come in, this really helps with your mental health,'” Waters told CNN.

“When you go out it kind of gives you a rush, almost like you’ve somehow woken up. I know it sounds really weird, but it definitely gives you that tingling feeling of having accomplished something you never thought you could do before.”

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

benefits of swimming

Since her first adventure at sea with her mother, Waters has never looked back.

According to the charity Versus Arthritis, for which Waters wrote, swimming provides a number of physical benefits for arthritis sufferers, from relieving muscle stiffness to increasing joint flexibility.

For Waters, these physical benefits coincide with the mental ones.

“You always have that creepy feeling, just before you walk in, of ‘can you do it? , it definitely adds something.” .

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

“Once you start to improve your symptoms of anxiety or depression, it can also bring you physical benefits.”

After finishing swimming for the first time in more than a year, Dr Lieber faced four consecutive nights of work in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

“I usually dread the first of those night shifts,” he said. “But somehow the task seemed more manageable than usual.” “What happens tonight will happen. Whatever happens, there will always be tomorrow.”

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