Updated: Oct 20, 2020
It’s long been hailed by evangelists as a serious life tonic, but now a study by the British Medical Journal has proven the positive impact that wild swimming can have on our mental health.
This mood lift is something writer Lou Stoppard discovered when she spoke to women who swim in London’s iconic Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond for The New Yorker: “For many of the women who come here day after day, year after year, it has become a special kind of oasis.” As one of its regulars, 62-year-old Julia Dick, tells Stoppard, “It’s a welcoming space… The pond can support you through crises. It helped me with the death of my parents. And with menopause, all the mood changes.”
So if you’ve been contemplating a wild swim, now’s the perfect time to brave your local beach, cove, lake or river and discover just how beneficial it can be.
What is wild swimming?
Wild swimming, or open water swimming, is the practise of swimming in a natural body of water. “In our grandparents’ day, swimming holes were where people learnt to swim and congregated on a summer day – to paddle, picnic and play. Today there is a resurgence of interest in this traditional pleasure and people are learning to explore their rivers and lakes for swimming again,” says Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming.
“There is something slightly naughty, a little bit 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,” Start says.
How is it different from regular swimming?
Apart from the known fitness benefits that swimming offers, the real impact of wild swimming comes from the cold-water immersion. The resulting change in body temperature then triggers a set of internal responses – and it’s the change in body temperature, rather than the reduction, that’s crucial, according to Mike Tipton, professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth’s Extreme Environments Laboratory. “It is skin cooling that initiates the beneficial changes, not reductions in deep body temperatures; in fact, changes in deep body temperature can result in detrimental consequences. This suggests that short swims (less than 15 minutes) in cool or cold water might suffice.”
Dutch wild swimming advocate Wim “The Ice Man” Hof has gained global acclaim for his scientific research on the subject, been dubbed a “master of meditation”, holds the world record for the longest swim under ice and devised his own method of cold-water training. Earlier this year he told The Guardian: “We need to be stimulated to help fight disease. Cold is a great stimulator… If you want to become strong, happy and healthy, you’d better do this shit.”
Is wild swimming safe?
Before you dive in, there’s a checklist of precautions. Firstly, check the depth and direction of the current of your chosen spot and ensure public swimming is legally allowed. Secondly, make sure you have warm, dry clothes on standby for when you finish, and cover any cuts with plasters. Thirdly, check your body post-swimming for any insects, ticks or leeches, which are often associated with wild swimming environments. And finally, always tell someone where you’re going, or better still swim with a partner. For wild swimming inspiration, Lonely Planet is a useful resource.
Five ways wild swimming can benefit mental health
It’s meditative “The meditative effect that swimming can have is not to be undervalued,” says avid wild swimmer Matt Cunningham, performance specialist at Workshop Gymnasium London. “You are solely in the moment, focusing on your technique, your timing and your breathing. That singular focus is especially healthy for us in modern society when we are constantly overstimulated by technology. The water is a space where we can fully disconnect.” Add to that calming, natural surrounds, and the benefits become two-fold. “There aren't many other forms of cardio that force you to be mindful of your breathing either,” Cunningham adds. “Attention to the breath is a key element in any form of training to maximise the benefits of the session.”
It reduces inflammation
Whether suffering from a virus or stress, our immune system’s natural response is inflammation. Short term, this isn’t a problem, but prolonged inflammatory response has been found to exacerbate depressive symptoms. According to Tipton, wild swimming can help: “There are physiologically-based hypotheses that suggest that swimming regularly in cold water results in a cross-adaptive anti-inflammatory response. This is beneficial because some mental health problems [such as depression] are thought to have an inflammatory basis.”
It reduces stress hormones Secreted by your adrenal glands, cortisol is an important natural stimulant that helps us handle everyday life. Too much cortisol, however, can lead to anxiety and weaken the immune system, so it’s vital we keep it in check. This is where a wild swim might help. “Immersion in cold water results in a ‘cold-shock’ response: gasping, hyperventilation, increased heart rate, release of stress (sympathoadrenal) hormones,” explains Tipton. “Repeated cold water immersion allows acclimatisation, including a reduction in the cold-shock response – a reduction in the level of the stress hormones (noradrenaline, cortisol, ACTH).”
It increases happy hormones
As well as reducing stress, wild swimming can actively boost levels of the happy hormones in our bodies too. A study undertaken by scientists in Prague in 2000 found that cold water immersion can boost dopamine levels by 530 per cent (the neurotransmitter that helps us experience pleasure); while further studies in 2008, by molecular biologist Nikolai Shevchuk, discovered it also increases beta-endorphin and noradrenaline, the feel-good chemicals in our brain. Tipton agrees that after immersion in cold water, “concentrations of dopamine, serotonin and b-endorphins are associated with improved mood or the ‘post-swim high”. According to Dr Peter Bongiorno, a naturopathic doctor based in New York, wild swimming also raises our natural endocannabinoid levels, which gives us a mood boost (it’s this system in our bodies that’s responsible for physiological processes including appetite, pain-sensation, mood and memory).
It helps you connect with nature
Being in nature is something that has been long been thought to have a significant impact on our mood. “For many, this kind of communion with our ecology is evolving. It’s a place to seek inspiration, intuition and peace and also to be humbled by the immensity and wonder of nature,” says Start. It’s been suggested that ‘green exercise’ such as wild swimming helps to foster a more positive mindset, reduce feelings of fatigue and anxiety and even improve your likelihood of sticking to regular workouts.
“Training in nature can have profound positive physical and mental health benefits,” adds Cunningham. “If you live in a city, programming in time in nature every week is essential for your health. A recent study suggests that spending 120 minutes a week in nature will boost wellbeing. You can break that down into 15 to 20 minutes per day, or get it all in one day per week – the results are the same.”
If you want to learn more about the mental and physical health benefits related to open water swimming and cold exposure, feel free to join our ICEWIM Facebook group.
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