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

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

The relative low impact of water activities compared to running makes them perfect outlets for people treating minor injuries, as well as the elderly.

And these aren’t just short-term gains, there are long-lasting benefits to swimming, too.

Regular swimmers have a 28% lower risk of dying prematurely and a 41% lower risk of dying from heart disease and stroke, according to a 2017 Swim England Swimming and Health Commission report.

calm waters

Although the physical benefits of swimming are widely documented, the mental health benefits of bathing are less well known, but just as impactful.

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 being recognized as having mental health benefits.

For those ready to brave the cold, the feel-good hormone dopamine is released upon entering cold water, providing 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 found a growing body of anecdotal evidence that it can dampen the inflammatory responses that cause anxiety and depression.

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

Writing for CNN last summer, frontline worker Dr. Mark Lieber reflected on the transformative impact of even brief dips in the pool to help lift the weight of the previous year, clean and dry. figured.

“My first thought while diving below the surface of the water was that I felt a little more buoyant than usual, probably due to the extra pounds brought on by quarantine,” Lieber said.

“But as I continued to glide through 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 that had built up during the coronavirus pandemic.

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

“The Moment of Epiphany”

Rachel Ashe, founder of Mental Health Swims, is 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 encounters across the UK.

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

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

Braving the ‘Loony Dook’ – an annual event that sees fearless participants take to the freezing 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 very alien feeling of connection to my body after living miserable in my bad mind for so long was a real heartbreaking moment. epiphany for me.”
A New Years 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 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 swim hosts with a focus on inclusion and peer support.

The reasons for joining vary. For some, it’s the sense of community, while others crave mindfulness and that endorphin rush after swimming.

Ashe loves the water as an alternative safe space to the more intimidating environment of the gymnasium, a passion that has breathed new life into her sanity.

“I learned that my differences are a strength rather than a shame,” Ashe said. “I never thought I could do the things I do today.

“I will always have a mental illness, but I’m taking care of myself much better these days. I still have great feelings, but with the meds, therapy, outdoor swimming and healthy relationships. and happy, I’m doing very well.”

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


Few people are better placed to talk about 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.

Aggressive treatments and medications proved to be extremely exhausting, and after he returned from traveling and working in Australia, a lump on his neck turned out to be skin cancer.

The physical and emotional toll of operations to eradicate cancer and change treatments has been compounded by the need to protect herself during the pandemic, but Waters’ fortunes took a turn when – after a little nudge from her mother – she began to swim in the sea.

The waters have started to swim during the pandemic.

“She started going there and she kept saying, ‘You gotta get in, it really helps with your mental health,'” Waters told CNN.

“When you go out you rush around a bit, almost like you’ve been woken up in some way. I know that sounds really weird, but it definitely gives you that tingling feeling that you’ve accomplished something that you didn’t. ‘ve ever done. thought you’d be able to do it before.”

And so began a stubborn commitment, even in winter, to swimming two to three times a week – sometimes the only way for Waters to leave the house due to protection requirements.

Since her first adventure in the seas with her mother, Waters has never looked back.
By relieving muscle stiffness and increasing joint flexibility, swimming has a number of physical boosts for arthritis sufferers, according to the charity Versus Arthritis, for whom Waters wrote.

For Waters, these physical improvements dovetail with the mental health benefits.

“You always have that feeling of fear, right before you come in 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 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 it – – 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 completing his first swim in over a year, Dr. Lieber was contemplating the start of a four-night stint working 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.

“Whatever happens tonight, happens. No matter what, there will always be tomorrow.

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