Menu Menu

Could outdoor swimming benefit our mental health?

Scientists in the UK have launched a study examining how immersion in cold, open water could work as an alternative option to medication for people with depression.

If you’ve even a rudimentary understanding of mental health, likelihood is you’re familiar to the concept of going for walks to improve your wellbeing.

Often recommended by medical professionals thanks to a strong body of evidence verifying the health benefits of connecting with nature, this form of therapy has really been taking off lately.

So much so, in fact, that earlier this year doctors in Canada were granted permission to prescribe patients a free year-long pass to the country’s national parks in the hope it would boost international recognition of the mood-lifting power of the great outdoors.

Several months later and this notion appears to have made its way across the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists in the UK have begun examining how swimming in cold, open water could work as an alternative option to medication for people with depression.

Connecting with Nature – Wild Swimming & Mental Health | Action Mental Health

The study, which is being conducted by experts at the university of Portsmouth and the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, seeks to identify how ‘ecotherapy’ – therapeutic intervention through nature – could potentially replace antidepressants.

It comes as professionals re-examine their understanding of certain psychological conditions following research to suggest that the mechanics behind how they operate may be incorrect.

‘Funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), the study will provide preliminary support for using outdoor swimming as an alternative to antidepressants or talking therapies,’ says professor of Sport, Health, and Exercise Science Dr Heather Massey, who is commanding the investigation.

‘In this new study we are looking at outdoor swimming as part of social prescribing, which looks to support members of the community who are self-referred or referred by a number of professional organisations to community activities that will support them. It’s a step up in terms of scientific rigour.’

Swimming improves mood and reduces mental health symptoms – Outdoor Swimming Society Outdoor Swimming Society

Currently, Massey and her team are searching for volunteers who will participate in a course so their results can be compared against a control group using treatments that are already available.

If successful, the trial could add to existing proof that exercise (including those silly little walks) is a hugely useful tool in bettering the wellbeing of those feeling down.

Not only this, but it will expand upon prior acknowledgement that immersion in chilly lakes, rivers, lidos, ponds, reservoirs, or the sea significantly reduces the risk of early death (even more so death due to heart disease or a stroke), increases happiness, is an anti-inflammatory method of pain relief, and can lead to a wonderful night’s sleep.

Plus, regularly taking the plunge has also been linked to our ability to become more resilient to anxiety, since being submerged in freezing temperatures triggers the body’s shock response.

Cold water immersion - The Optimum Health Clinic

‘Cold water or open water swimming is widely reported to have many benefits to both mind and body, from strengthening the cardio-respiratory system and immune system, to helping people to lose excess weight through the cooling of the body and then the rewarming process (thermogenesis),’ explains cold water specialist, Laura Ansell.

‘Cold water swimming also improves the body’s responses to stress, releasing endorphins which will help you relax, to sleep better and to feel calmer.’

Speaking from experience as an avid outdoor swimmer myself, having a frequent dopamine-inducing dip has done wonders for my mental health.

On this note, I – and the 4.1 million other members of the community donning their bathing suits a few times a week – will be delighted if the indescribable catharsis of wading through revitalising ‘blue environments’ officially starts being offered to people suffering to help them heal.


Thred Newsletter!

Sign up to our planet-positive newsletter