Do you have childhood memories of plunging into the sea, shrieking with joy and shock at the cold? Or that stream where you splashed about in the shallows, while the bigger children bravely waded into the dark, deeper stretches, egging each other on to go just that little bit further? There’s something about wild water that draws people to it.
Interest in wild swimming – taking a dip in natural waters such as rivers, lakes and the sea – has grown over recent years. Ten years ago The Outdoor Swimming Society had a handful of regional representatives, now there are more than 50 groups in the UK. But the lure of the water isn’t just down to nostalgia – wild swimming can be beneficial in many ways.
Dive – or gingerly wade – in for these proven health benefits.
Boost your immune system
According to Italian researchers, braving wintry waters for short periods stimulates the body’s stress response, boosting the number of infection-fighting white blood cells. A UK study showed that sea swimmers seemed to suffer from fewer colds and, when they did get them, symptoms were milder. Cold-water immersion also raises levels of glutathione, an antioxidant found in our cells that combats free radicals. As its level decreases with age, a cold dip could give it a boost.
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Improve mental health
Exercising outdoors reduces stress, improves mood and self-esteem. A British Medical Journal Case Report showed that swimming in cold water might also be an effective treatment for depression. A 24-year-old woman who had suffered from depression since the age of 17 trialled a programme of weekly open-water swims. After each swim, her mood improved. Gradually her depression symptoms declined, which meant her medication could also be reduced and eventually stopped.
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That dip in chilly waters may feel like it’s turning your extremities to ice, but your circulation is actually getting a boost. The cold prompts your body to protect your core by surrounding your organs with warm blood. Your heart then works harder to pump blood round the whole body, and the improvement in circulation means any areas of inflammation can heal faster. Low levels of inflammation are also associated with longevity.
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Burn more calories
Babies, it turns out, are rather clever. They, along with hibernating animals, have high levels of brown fat. This fat helps them burn calories quickly to convert food into heat and keep themselves warm without shivering. Brown fat levels decrease with age but exposure to cold water can activate them, which means regular wild swimming could help you burn calories at a higher rate and help you stay at a healthy weight.
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Turn back the clock on ageing
Research at Indiana University showed that regular swimmers are biologically 20 years younger than their chronological age suggests. Swimming can have positive effects on age markers such as blood pressure, cardiovascular performance, lung function, the central nervous system, cognitive functioning, muscle mass and blood chemistry.
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Mindful swimming to help you relax
Much like wild swimming, the popularity of the mindfulness movement has grown in recent years. Tessa Wardley, author of The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming, says, ‘Practising the arts of swimming and mindfulness together encourages the development of both skills. Swimming requires the coordination of the mind, body and breath; mindfulness practice requires you to focus on the same three things. Many swimmers say they feel alive, calm and focused; sensing the water and letting the strokes flow. An almost identical vocabulary is used by practitioners of mindfulness and meditation.’
Tessa Wardley’s tips for mindful swimming
Reaching the water Savour the anticipation and make your approach into a meaningful ritual. As you shed your clothes, shed the stresses and constraints they may signify.
Breathing As you focus on the experience before you get in the water, take a moment to notice your breathing. Breathe smoothly and deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth until you start to relax.
Immersion Start slowly and lower yourself into the water. Employ all your senses, and notice how the water feels on your skin. Water has many temperatures and textures and the pressure it exerts on our bodies is an all-over massage.
Swimming As you start to swim, discover the liberation that comes with weightlessness and enter an intensely private world where it is just you and the water. Match your body to your breath and find your rhythm.
Afterwards As you end your swim, pull yourself free of the water, wrap up and revel in the post-swim glow.
The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming is published by Leaping Hare Press
The Outdoor Swimming Society says:
Join a group Find one near you – search for ‘groups’ at outdoorswimmingsociety.com.
What to wear Wetsuits keep you warm and help with buoyancy, or just rock up in a swimsuit. In colder water, neoprene gloves, bootees and hats help.
Stay safe Choose lakes, lidos and beaches with lifeguard support. Research tides and currents, plus hazards such as rip tides and quicksand. Find entry and exit points before you swim and don’t swim alone. Learn the signs of hypothermia – slurred speech, confusion and lack of coordination.
Warm up afterwards Limit your time in cold water, get dry and dress quickly in warm clothes, even in summer.
Dive in or wade in? Read Dr Mark Porter’s advice
When your body enters the water, the cold shock response is triggered: an initial gasp, rapid breathing and a rise in pulse rate. If you dive in, immersing your face in the water at the same time triggers another response, the dive reflex. It has the opposite effect, slowing your heart and encouraging you to hold your breath.
It’s the confusion generated by the two conflicting reflexes that leads to heart rhythm disturbances, which can increase the risk of cardiac arrest. Wading in prolongs the agony, but it’s likely to be safer for your heart.
Five beautiful places to go swimming
Abereiddi Blue Lagoon, Fishguard
Popular inland lagoon in breached quarry with wheelhouse ruins for jumping. Signed Abereiddi, 9 miles from Fishguard/6 miles from St Davids (SA62 6DT). Follow coast path 300m north to lagoon. Do not jump from top tower at low tide. Bottom platform safe at all tides. 5 mins walk from map co-ordinates: 51.9377, -5.2088
Durdle Door, West Lulworth
Huge, ancient sea arch on Purbeck coastline. Long, steep, shingle beach (undertow in surf conditions) with caves in cliffs. Signed West Lulworth from A352, then 5 miles. Park in the Lulworth visitor centre car park and follow signs uphill (30 mins), or at Durdle Door Holiday Park (BH20 5PU), turn right before West Lulworth and continue uphill. 20 mins walk from map co-ordinates: 50.6217, -2.2767
Loch Arkaig, Lochaber
Swim wild from the enchanting and remote white pebble beaches of Loch Arkaig. Perfect wild camping. 5 mins walk from map co-ordinates: 56.9760, -5.2917
Lealholm, River Esk, Whitby
Pretty paddling and dipping by the village green with train station, little pub, bakery and coffee shop. Deeper pool is just upstream of bridge on bend behind the Board Inn (YO21 2AJ). 2 mins walk from map co-ordinates: 54.4583, -0.8257
Blea Tarn, Eskdale
Popular swimming tarn above Eskdale. A steep walk up. A beachy area on south side. The water is peaty and a little brown. Amazing sunsets. Follow the path up from behind Beckfoot Station, Eskdale. 40 mins walk from map co-ordinates: 54.3967, -3.2870