By Jemma Powell | Science Editor
The popularity of outdoor swimming (or wild swimming) is on the rise, with 7.5 million people taking to the colder waters in 2019. Are there any real advantages of this, or is the population turning to a short, chilly activity as a favoured exercise for no real reason?
Physical Benefits of Cold Water
Turns out, the swimmers aren’t wrong. Aside from the obvious health benefits of swimming in general, there’s a plethora of physiological advantages associated with cold water immersion specifically. For example, people who regularly swim outdoors have healthier blood pressure and lipid profiles. There are also numerous studies showing the improved well-being of those who suffer from rheumatism, fibromyalgia and asthma after venturing into the water.
Those who regularly swim in cold water are theorised to have increased immunity, as cold shock triggers white blood cell production leading to a natural immune system boost. There is also a strong link between cold water and increased tolerance to stress. Our bodies physiological stress response to mental and physical stress are very similar, and repeatedly submerging yourself in cold water causes your body to increase its activation threshold. This means you can stay calmer in situations you previously wouldn’t have been- whether that be jumping into an ice pool or asking out your crush.
Outdoor swimming, especially in salt water, also has proven benefits for you skin. The mineral rich, mildly antiseptic sea aids in the healing of damaged skin, and gives you a general healthy-looking glow.
Mental Benefits of Cold Water
There are plenty of proven mental health benefits of outdoor swimming as well. Cold water can help increase mindfulness, boost your self esteem, and provide the sense of grounding found in natural environments. These are proven tools for many forms of mental rest.
Wild swimming has also been proven to have a positive impact in treating mood disorders. A case study in 2018 found weekly open water swimming was an effective treatment for a patient suffering from long-term anxiety and depression. The patient in question became, and has remained, medication-free since the study ended.
Danger! No swimming!
If you’ve read this article and find yourself wanting to throw yourself into the nearest body of water and instantly be cured of asthma… DON’T!!
Though there are general proven benefits, the effectiveness of cold-water swimming as a health tool depends entirely on unique anatomical make-up of a participating individual. Long term benefits are also seen more frequently in regular participation instead of the occasional one off.
Sadly, open water swimming has its own set of very real dangers. Changing currents, sharp objects, water pollution, and the temperature of the water itself regularly lead to preventable deaths- either directly, or indirectly through drowning or hypothermia.
Some advice on safe swimming
Still fancy giving it a go? Here’s some top tips to stay safe out there:
- RESEARCH! – the internet is full of fantastic safe swimming spots but also importantly which ones to avoid. Do some safety checks before entering the water. Are there any warning signs nearby? Is the water moving quickly? How deep is the water and at what point does it go deep? Is there anything in the water that could cause injury? Is there more than one safe exit point etc.
- BE PREPARED! – a thermos of hot juice, plenty of warm layers, shoes to wear in the water, a working mobile phone with signal, and telling someone where you’re going etc are all basic things that could genuinely save your life. For longer swims, a float and warmer swimwear are also a must.
- DON’T BE AN IDIOT! – if you can’t swim, don’t go, or wear a life jacket. If you go somewhere with jumping spots: check the depth of the water before jumping, have someone in the water close by in case something goes wrong, if you don’t commit fully to a jump from high up, you will do it wrong and hurt yourself.
Wild swimming is definitely worth a shot; if done safely it can have real long-term benefits on your health. However, if you have any doubt about safety, don’t have any good spots nearby, or would rather stay at home? Regular cold showers have a similar effect.Jemma Powell Science and Technology