The Joy Of Swimming: How Getting In The Water Can Improve Physical And Mental Health

Alexandra Ferguson

(WAB NEWS) – As we enter the boreal summer and temperatures rise, more and more of us are taking to the water in search of a series of benefits for the body and mind.

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

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By using all your muscles, swimming ensures a full body workout and as such, 30 minutes of exercise in the water is equivalent to 45 minutes on land, according to Swim England.

Even a leisurely swim session can burn more than 400 calories per hour, more than double that of walking.

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The low impact of water activities, in contrast to running, makes them the perfect choice for those with minor injuries, as well as the elderly.

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

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

Calm waters

Although 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 had reduced the number of visits to a medical health professional, according to Swim England.

Open water swimming in particular, with its naturally cooler temperatures, is increasingly understood as having a mental health benefit.

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

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

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

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

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

“My first thought as I dove into the water was that I felt a little more buoyant than usual, probably due to the extra pounds of quarantine,” Lieber said.

“But as I continued to flow 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 accumulated during the coronavirus pandemic.”

“Stroke after stroke, I could feel my mood lift, my mind clear and my body loosen up.”

A “moment of epiphany”

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

Mental Health Swims is a volunteer-run peer support community that organizes open water meets across the UK.

After receiving a mental health diagnosis in 2018, Ashe initially took up running, but lost confidence after some terrifying slips on the ice over the winter.

By the end of the year, she was feeling “really bad” and “everything was challenging”, but on New Year’s Day, Ashe literally launched herself into a new future.

Ashe took on the challenge of the “Loony Dook”, an annual event in which intrepid participants plunge into the icy waters near Edinburgh, Scotland. Ashe walked back to the beach shaking, but changed.

“It was very painful and I didn’t enjoy it,” Ashe told WAB NEWS Sport, “but the strange feeling of connection to my body after living unhappily in my poor mind for so long was a true epiphany moment for me.”

A New Years 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 ever since, even during the pandemic.

This year, Mental Health Swims will organize more than 80 swim meets, from Cornwall in the South West of England to Loch Lomond in Scotland, led by trained volunteer hosts, with an emphasis on inclusion and peer support.

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

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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 new lease of life.

“I’ve learned that my differences are a strength and not something to be ashamed of,” says Ashe. “I never thought I could do the things I do today.”

“I will always have a mental illness, but today I take much better care of myself. I still have great feelings, but with medication, therapy, outdoor swimming, and healthy, happy relationships, I’m doing great.”

Mental Health Swims has grown since its founding in 2019.

“Revitalized”

There are few people better able 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 during her college days, Waters has lived with the symptoms of the chronic inflammatory disease for more than a decade.

The aggressive treatments and medication were very exhausting, and after returning from traveling and working in Australia, it turned out that a lump on her neck was actually skin cancer.

The physical and emotional toll of cancer removal operations and treatments were compounded by the need to protect themselves during the pandemic, but Waters’ luck took a turn when, after a little push from her mother, she took up swimming in the sea.

Waters started swimming during the pandemic.

“He started going and kept saying, ‘You have to come in, it really helps with your mental health,'” Waters told WAB NEWS.

“When you go out, it kind of gives you a high, almost like you’ve woken up in a way. 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 dogged commitment, even through the 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.

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

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

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

“You always have this scary feeling, right before you walk in, of ‘can you do it?’” Waters said. “But I do it and afterwards it’s a sense of accomplishment in a way, for your physical and mental well-being, it definitely adds something.”

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

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

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

“I usually dread the first of these night shifts,” he said. “But somehow the task seemed more manageable than usual.” “What happens tonight will happen. No matter what happens, there will always be tomorrow.”

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