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Dive into the mental health benefits of swimming

The healing benefits of nature are unmissable. Outdoor swimming has become more popular than ever in the past year, and it’s easy to see why. Ruth, our founder, even wrote an article for BALANCE revealing exactly how open water swimming can be beneficial for both our mental and physical health.

According to a recent survey, more than 70% of outdoor swimmers said that their practice is essential or very important to their general sense of wellbeing, and provides significant support to their physical and mental health. This works hand-in-hand with notable research on hobbies, which shows that people who have them are less likely to suffer from stress, low mood, and depression.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, millions of us have turned to nature to help us with our mental health. While indoor pools remained closed during lockdown, many people decided to find new, alternative ways to get active. This has resulted in an outdoor swimming boom, with 87% of participants in the Outdoor Swimmer Survey stating that the pandemic has made outdoor swimming much more popular than it once was.

Swimming is a wonderful, easy activity that is enjoyable for all; it’s inclusive regardless of body diversity, age, level of fitness or ability. It also allows us to connect with nature, and improve our wellbeing. So much so, this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, running from 10th-17th May, is focused on the power of nature, and the enormous mental benefits it can provide to each and every one of us.

With that said, you don’t have to swim in lakes, seas or tarns to enjoy the mental health benefits of swimming. Pool swimming can be just as beneficial, and can be more accessible for people wanting to get in the water.

The mental health benefits of swimming

There are plenty of reasons to dive into swimming- and we’re not saying this out of bias! It’s an activity that provides multiple physical benefits; in a study of over 8,000 swimmers, 28% of swimmers had a lower risk of early death, and 41% had a lower risk of death due to heart disease and strokes.

Swimming also allows us to experience numerous mental health benefits too. It has the capacity to reduce our stress levels, appreciate the environment, experience calm, build social bonds, and boost those all-important ‘feel good’ endorphins.

Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Swimming for mental health gives you a chance to reduce your stress, possibly more so than any other form of physical exercise.

Being in contact with water in itself can help to loosen up both our bodies and our minds. Better still, being immersed in water while swimming and practising the regular rhythm of your strokes can have a very relaxing effect on the mind.

In addition, studies have also found that swimming has the ability to positively impact your brain. Research has found that swimming can help promote hippocampal neurogenesis – the growth of new cells in parts of the brain which can break down during chronic (long-term) stress. It’s therefore suggested that swimming may well enhance our ability to manage and cope with stress more easily.

Ability to connect with nature

Swimming for mental health isn’t just about curbing anxiety- outdoor swimming also strengthens our connection with nature and the environment. 38% of swimmers cite connecting with nature as the main reason for swimming outdoors, which increases our sense of gratitude and wonder.

When we spend time outdoors, we open ourselves up to improvements in our mood, confidence and self-esteem. It can also be particularly effective in combating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and provides us with the Vitamin D our bodies need to keep our bones, teeth, and muscles healthy.

This forms the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which will not only look at nature’s unique ability to bring consolation in times of stress, but also examine how nature has the capacity to increase our creativity and empathy.

Calming and soothing effects of swimming

Water is often associated with feelings of calmness. Water has been found to help produce a meditative state, as the sound and feel of the water can alter our brain wave patterns. This can help promote mental clarity, improve sleeping patterns, and ease our worries!

The mental health benefits of swimming also go deeper than this (no pun intended). When we spend time in water, we take ourselves away from all of our distractions and focus on the present moment. This means we have time away from our phones, screens, and emails to simplify our visual landscape, and feel the soothing effect of the water on every part of our bodies.

Build social bonds

One aspect of swimming that can sometimes be overlooked is the social bonds that it can nurture, build, and strengthen. By taking part in an activity, we give ourselves an opportunity to build human connections and create a sense of community.

Social interaction is something that our brains really do depend on. We need to feel a part of something greater than ourselves, and participate in experiences with others to boost our mood and reduce our risk of anxiety and depression. Strong, healthy relationships can also help strengthen your immune system, help you recover from disease, and even lengthen your life. 

While swimming in itself is a solitary form of physical exercise, it’s also a hobby and team sport that has the capacity to create shared, meaningful experiences with others. Swimming can therefore be a great way to meet like-minded individuals to take part in activities together, swap swimming tips, or simply enjoy a nice hot cuppa afterwards!

Release ‘feel-good’ endorphins

Swimming- whether indoor or outdoor- helps you release endorphins in your brain. These are the natural, feel-good hormones that increase positivity and boosts our wellbeing and happiness.

The release of these endorphins is the key reason why so many of us become addicted to swimming; studies have found that swimmers have an extraordinarily high number of endorphins running through their body after exercising. This is precisely why swimming is so effective in combating depression, as it really does help our brains do what they do best.

Cold-water swimming can also encourage the release of ‘cold-shock’ proteins, which are specialised proteins that have the power to promote healthy cell production.

As you’ll probably expect, these ‘cold shock’ proteins increase when the body experiences a sudden decrease in its core temperature, and works to protect our bodies against excessive stresses. These proteins also help muscles cope more effectively during exercise.

When we experience cold-water swimming, these proteins get to work on our body. When this is done regularly, these proteins have been found to offer potential protection against degenerative diseases like dementia, and even repair some of the damage that it can cause to the brain.

Why do you swim and what are the benefits you get from swimming?

If you don’t quite fancy jumping into the cold water just yet, don’t worry- you don’t need to swim in the sea or a lake to reap the benefits of swimming, as pool swimming is just as beneficial!

Here at CHAMPS, we’re big fans of all types of swimming, and it’s something that is personally valued by both Ruth (our Managing Director and Founder) and Tara (our CEO). Ruth tends to specialise in sea and lake swimming, and is currently training for a triathlon! Tara, on the other hand, is a frequent pool swimmer at her local outdoor pool, and loves nothing better than starting her day with morning swim.

The reason why I swim by Ruth Cooper-Dickson

I moved to the coast during lockdown one as I really wanted to get out of London. Having spent 3 years of my life living in Sydney, Australia, I’ve always loved being close to the water, particularly the beach… Although swimming in the Thames Estuary is a little different to Bondi Beach! I found a swim coach to teach me the safety aspects of swimming in the estuary and from there my passion just bloomed.

I found an amazing connection to a network of like-minded individuals, people of all different backgrounds who love the water as much as I do. Interestingly, most started for the mental health benefits and it is what drew them to the water. 

I kept swimming over the summer and right the way through the winter months. I actually love the cold water swimming more. The fact when I’m in cold water I cannot think about anything else, the cold water shock brings you right back into your body and the present. You have to focus on your breathing, your heart rate and moving to stay alive. I swear it has helped my anxiety with the constant exposure to the fight/flight response in my brain. 

Not only that, I have also discovered all cold water swimmers love the post-swim cake and hot drink, now that is a reward worth swimming for!

The reason why I swim by Tara Kent

For as long as I can remember I have loved swimming. I remember doing my first swimming badge at around age 5 (doggy paddle and I almost didn’t make it!) and doing a sponsored swim with David Wilkie (teenage swoon!) at my swimming club around age 11. 

We were lucky enough to have a swimming pool at my middle school and the local outdoor pool in Windsor charged only 80p a day in the summer months so I literally lived there during summer holidays. 

I swam less and less over the years after I left home – student life, working hours and lack of proximity to a pool got in the way but all that changed with Covid. 

After the first national lockdown I started going to the local outdoor (heated!) pool again – because I had time, no commute and I also needed to do something other than walk around the same block.  Before Covid, I would go when I had the time. Post Covid, I go regardless.

I feel most at home in the water – weightless, graceful and strong. I am far fitter in the water than on land – clearly a dolphin in a past life! 

In the water, I focus only on one thing – what length I am on. 

It allows me to totally empty my mind in a way I struggle to do with any other form of mindfulness. 

I also benefit from being outdoors with birds and sunshine. Any problems I have seem tiny in the unlimited sky.  

In the winter the added buzz comes getting in and out of the pool into freezing temperatures – not the same as wild swimming but definitely an extra endorphin boost. 

Diving into the mental health benefits of swimming

We hope that this gives you a little bit of inspiration when it comes to taking the plunge. 

While outdoor swimming may be a little intimidating, don’t forget that all types of swimming count! If you’re not sure where to start, ease yourself in slowly, find someone experienced to accompany you, and remind yourself that less is always more. It’s far better to do less than stay too long in the cold water, which can then put you off any future swims.

Swimming in any capacity allows you to take full advantage of the mental health benefits of swimming; it can help you reduce stress, promote a sense of calm, and boost your brain power. You’ll also get to connect with nature and create shared positive experiences in the process, which is something that we could all definitely benefit from in current times.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves to take care of our mental health as best we can, and to reach out for some support if you’re struggling. My Mental Wealth CHAMPion training serves as a great opportunity to upskill your mental health awareness, and understand the responsibility of individual self-care.

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