William Wordsworth loved doing it in the Lake District. Hollywood icon Katherine Hepburn was still practising it in her eighties. Now presenter Fearne Cotton swears by it and the Beckhams have built a pond for it. A new wave of wild swimming devotees is on the rise. Solitary and social, exhilarating and calming. Is there more to the childish delight of splashing about in the river? Could it be the tonic in your gin of life? Find out the five reasons why wild swimming is back in fashion.
- Changes Our Perspective
Over 50% of the world’s population now live in urban areas. Our brains are swimming in stimuli. The smell of car fumes, noise of traffic and daily assault of signs and advertising commercials. Being outside in water helps you switch off, like a mental oasis for your mind. Dip in and declutter.
Dr Wallace J Nichols, a marine biologist and author of the book ‘Blue Mind’, states in his TED talk, “When we’re near, on, in or under water, we get a cognitive break because there’s simply less information coming in”. Your brain is relaxed but focused.
Now tune-in to the sensory pleasure of listening to waves. Feel the water lap against your skin. Inhale the cold air that hits your cheeks. Be in the moment and breathe. “When you swim outside it brings your attention back to the things that are going on around us. It’s nice to just slip away from the modern-day vacuum and feel alive” writes cold water swimming enthusiast Fay Preene.
- Improves Mental Health
You get a natural buzz from bathing outdoors. This ‘high’ is caused by the release of endorphins which help ease the sting of the cold. Journalist Alexandra Heminsley writes “Like a hangover in reverse, I had done something that was painful for a few minutes but left me feeling well for hours”.
Sarah, a 24-year-old, had been on anti-depressants for 7 years. A study published in the British Medical Journal showed a dramatic improvement once she started regular daily dips.
The founder of Mental Health Swims, Rachel Ashe, struggles with anxiety and depression and says “on bad days I don’t want to get out of the water because it makes such a difference to how I feel”. She set up the organisation for ‘peer support, togetherness and the benefits of cold water for mental health’. It is now popular nationwide.
Wild swimming could affect more than our current frame of mind. Ongoing studies suggest it could help prevent the early onset of dementia and decrease the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause.
- Boosts Circulation
Kick-start the day with a cold-water swim and get your blood pumping! Flushing your brain and vital organs with fresh blood will make you feel alive. Claire (name changed) lives in the Netherlands and swims in the North Sea. “We were jumping around, shrieking like schoolgirls” she says of her first cold-water swim.
Scientists from the Czech Republic found that cold-water immersions significantly increase white blood cells and antioxidants, helping you build a strong and healthy immune system. Cross-channel swimmer and Swim England coach Jane McCormick says in an article for Women’s Fitness that “circulation is improved, and toxins are more readily flushed out of our system, which leads to clearer skin and a healthy glow”.
Swimming exercises all the major muscle groups. Add cold water, and your body works even harder. Some evidence suggests cold-water swimmers build up more ‘brown fat’, which in turn eats up your energy stores of white fat (body fat is fondly known in the outdoor swimming community as ‘bioprene’(!)). Of course, you’ll need to warm-up once you get out, so have a slice of chocolate cake and eat it. Life’s all about balance!
- Reduces Stress
Sixty percent of all modern diseases are connected to stress. Exercise, meditation and being in nature up to two hours a week are all known to help. Wild swimming could be the perfect remedy.
The shock of cold water hitting your body can feel like your insides have gone a round with Mike Tyson. The good news? After the initial ‘gasp response’ wears off your body goes in to fight-or-flight mode and releases the stress hormone Cortisol. In tests carried out by Professor Mike Tipton and Heather Massey at the University of Plymouth they found it only took six cold-water immersions to halve our stress response.
The more times you take the plunge, the more your body adapts to it. The nervous system learns to cope. Tipton says “We think that cold-water habituation resets those systems to deal with stress better”. Research is now being carried out to see if this could apply to dealing with all forms of stress. Put on your swimming costume and wash away your worries.
- Increases Confidence
Katie Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society, says that wild swimming “made me feel brave again”. When we step out of our comfort zone we open our world to new possibilities. We grow, transform and feel exhilarated. Plunging in to a big body of water is psychologically and physically challenging. A swim on the wild side will give you a huge sense of accomplishment.
In her podcast P B Hughes says “it’s hard getting in to cold water. You need courage to do that. And I think it helps approach other areas of your life with a similar courage. It’s given me strength of mind and strength of body”. A companion can encourage you to continue. They’ll watch your back, witness you master your strokes or simply share a sunset swim (and cake!) with you. You’d get a few funny looks if you belted out a power-ballad in an indoor pool. But singing in the Serpentine with a fellow Whitney Houston-lover, why not?
When testing the waters of any new activity, it’s important to remember to wade in gently. For safety tips, advice, or to connect with a swimming soul-mate check out organisations such as www.wildswimming.co.uk; www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com or www.wildswim.com .
So, what are you waiting for? Cast off your clothes and inhibitions. Release your inner wild child. As the Outdoor Swimming Society slogan says, ‘Come on in, the water’s lovely’.
By Andrea Lee