Credited with being a way to reconnect with nature in an often tech-driven world, wild swimming has surged in popularity. Now there’s increasing evidence that the cold water may also prove beneficial in combating common mental health issues.
For many, the thought of stripping down to your bikini and plunging into a sea or lake in the UK is an absolute no-go. In fact, for many, the thought of even doing so in a wetsuit is still a firm no. Yet, an increasing number of people are choosing to do exactly that, with the concept of wild swimming surging in popularity in the last couple of years. Credited with being a way to reconnect with nature in an often tech-driven world, there’s increasing evidence that it may prove beneficial in combating common mental health issues.
Among the most vocal supporters of the power of cold water is Wim Hof, better known as The Ice Man, who credits a combination of breathing techniques and wild swimming with helping him survive depression following the death of his wife when his four children were young: “My kids made me survive but nature healed me,” he told Balance Festival
. Having now become one of the world’s most authoritative voices on the practice – not to mention having swam under an actual arctic ice sheet
– he is confident that this technique doesn’t only work for record breakers: “Anybody can go into natural cold waters in Scotland, Wales and England – we have the right conditions to optimise the transportation system of good chemicals throughout our bodies.” That said, he does recommend starting small, like a few seconds of chilled water at the end of your shower, and working from there.
Although more research is still needed, early studies into the efficacy of cold-water swimming on mental health, the early indicators are that it may hold some weight. One study published in the British Medical Journal highlighted open water swimming to be an effective treatment for depression, based on the study of a 24-year-old woman with symptoms of major depressive disorder and anxiety, who had been treated for the condition since the age of 17. Keen to be medication free if possible, a weekly cold water swim was trialled. Researchers found that this led to: “an immediate improvement in mood following each swim and a sustained and gradual reduction in symptoms of depression, and consequently a reduction in, and then cessation of, medication. On follow-up a year later, she remains medication-free.” (1)
As we said, more research still needs to be done into exactly how and why cold water helps, but the scientists proposed that it may in part be down to the anti-inflammatory effect that cold water has on the body, given a growing number of studies have shown that inflammation may drive depression (2). It’s also been suggested that it could be that the shock of the cold water helps to initiate a stress response, activating a process known as habituation; by blunting your response to stress in one area, your brain is better able to adapt to stressors that emerge elsewhere.
What’s more, it seems that mental health concerns are not the only brain-based benefit of open-water swimming. In October 2020, academics from the University of Cambridge told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that they believe cold water swimming may also be powerful in safeguarding against the onset of dementia. The findings were based on a group of swimmers at London’s Parliament Hill Lido who were monitored between 2016 and 2018 and who showed increased levels of a “cold-shock” protein known as RBM3, which previous studies conducted on mice indicated may offer protection against the onset of dementia.
Where can I swim?
Amid increasing evidence of the power of cold-water swimming, there are a growing number of grassroots initiatives popping up across the country. Among them is Mental Health Swims, a peer-peer mental health support group which operates under the tagline: “Dips not distance. Community not competition.” With 50 swim groups across the UK, the meet ups are free and open to all, with a focus on being a non-judgemental safe-space. As such, they operate in a similar way to Run Talk Run
, the pioneering peer-to-peer mental health support running groups, of which there are now more than 100 across the UK. What’s more, each swim ends with an (optional) beach clean, which participants are encouraged to bring a bag and gloves to take part in.
If you’re already feeling confident, this handy online tool
lists wild swimming locations all across the UK. If you’d rather swim as part of a group, try Mental Health Swims
or the Outdoor Swimming Society’s list of local groups
How to prepare for cold water swimming
: Aside from a swimsuit or wetsuit, a towel, and a cosy jumper for afterwards, you don’t really need any fancy kit be able to go wild swimming – although a colourful array of expletives for the moment you hit the water will probably come in handy. A snack for afterwards is optional, but never regretted.
: Avoid swimming alone, or at least let someone know where you're going and when. Be conscious of any health conditions you may have that cold water could impact upon, for example heart conditions. If you’re in any doubt, speak to your doc first.
Don’t go crazy
: In the (paraphrased) words of Wim Hof, don’t hesitate to take it slow. Much as we’ve all got that
friend that prides themselves on diving into the sea headfirst in the middle of February, you don’t have to be them; baby steps are good. Think: ten seconds under a cold shower, or knee deep in the sea... hip height if you’re feeling brave.
: According to The Outdoor Swimming Society, it’s all about regularity and respecting your limits: “The secret to acclimatising to cold water is just to swim in it, often – at least once a week, and preferably two or three, gradually extending the time that you stay in the water. Get out if you are not comfortable, and don’t set time goals for staying in the water.”
: If you’re swimming in the sea, know that late summer and early autumn are the warmest times to swim.