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


As summer edges closer and temperatures gradually rise, more and more of us will take to the water in search of a range of benefits for body and mind.

Not a fan of running? Swimming may not merely be a good alternative, but a more efficient one.

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 can burn upwards of 400 calories an hour, over double the amount of walking.

The comparative low impact of water activities in contrast to running make them perfect outlets for those nursing minor injuries, as well as the elderly.

And it’s not just short-term gains, there’s also lasting benefits to swimming.

Regular swimmers have a 28% lower risk of early death and a 41% lower risk of death due to heart diseases and stroke, according to a report by Swim England’s Swimming and Health Commission in 2017.

While the physical boosts of swimming are widely documented, the mental health benefits of getting into the water are less well-known, yet equally as impactful.

In 2019, nearly half a million Brits living with mental health diagnoses said that swimming had reduced the number of visits to a medical health professional, according to Swim England.

Open water swimming in particular – with its naturally colder temperatures – is increasingly understood to have mental health benefits.

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

For those willing to brave the chill, the feelgood hormone dopamine is released by getting into cold water, ensuring an endorphin rush that can last hours after drying off.

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

Just being in a so-called “blue environment,” close to the ocean or a body of water, is known to lower stress responses.

Writing for CNN last summer, frontline worker Dr. Mark Lieber reflected on the transformative impact of even brief dips in the pool in helping alleviate the weight of the previous year, literally and figuratively.

“My first thought as I dove under the surface of the water was that I felt a little more buoyant than usual, likely due to the added 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 though the water were cleansing me of the stress that had accumulated during the coronavirus pandemic.

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

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-led peer support community that organizes open water meets up and down the UK.

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

By the close of the year, she was feeling “really unwell” and “everything was challenging,” yet on New Year’s Day, Ashe – quite literally – dove 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 with my body after living unhappily in my poorly mind for such a long time was a real epiphany moment for me.”

A New Year's 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 ever since, even through the pandemic.

This year, Mental Health Swims will host over 80 swim meets – from Cornwall in the southwest of England all the way up to Loch Lomond in Scotland – led by trained volunteer swim hosts with an emphasis on inclusion and peer support.

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

Ashe loves the water as an alternative safe space from the more intimidating environment of the gym, a passion that has breathed new life into her mental health.

“I have learned that my differences are a strength rather than something to be ashamed of,” Ashe said. “I never thought I could do the things I do today.

“I will always have a mental illness, but I am much better at looking after myself these days. I still have big feelings, but with medication, therapy, outdoor swimming and healthy, happy relationships, I am doing really well.”

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

Few are better suited to speak to 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 time at university, Waters has lived with symptoms of the chronic inflammatory disease for over a decade.

Aggressive treatments and medication proved massively draining, and after returning from traveling and working in Australia, a lump on her neck turned out to be skin cancer.

The physical and emotional toll of operations to remove the cancer and shifting treatments was compounded by the need to shield during the pandemic, but Waters’ fortunes turned a corner when – after a little nudge from her mother – she took up sea swimming.

Waters took up swimming during the pandemic.

“She started going and she kept saying, ‘You’ve gotta come in, it really does help with your mental health,’” Waters told CNN.

“When you get out, you get a bit of a rush, almost like you’ve been awakened in a way. I know that sounds really weird, but it definitely does give you that tingly feeling that you’ve achieved something that you never thought you would be able to do before.”

And so began a dogged commitment, even through winter, to swimming two to three times a week – at times, Waters’ only way of leaving the house due to shielding requirements.

Since her first venture into the seas with her mother, Waters has never looked back.

From easing muscle stiffness and increasing flexibility in the joints, swimming has a number of physical boosts for those with arthritis, according to charity Versus Arthritis, whom Waters has written for.

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

“You always do get the fear feeling, just before going in like, ‘Can you do it?’” Waters said.

“But I do it and then afterward it’s a sense of achievement in a way, for your physical and mental well-being, it definitely does do something.

“With all the meds, you can feel quite fatigued a lot of the time – when you’ve got a day off, you’re just so tired that you don’t feel like you’ve got the energy to do it – but once you’ve done it, it does revitalize you.

“Once you start improving your symptoms of anxiety or depression, it can physically give you benefits as well.”

After finishing his first swim in over a year, Dr. Lieber looked ahead to the start of a four-night stretch working 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.

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

By Percy