10 benefits of wild swimming
This year, I’m planning on taking to the sea and regularly incorporating wild swimming into my routine. So this week’s guest post has inspired me even more and convinced me of the benefits of wild swimming. If you’re unsure or you’ve been thinking of trying it out too, read on for Pippa Best’s reasons why wild swimming feels so good.
7 minutes to read
The power of wild swimming
This winter, at the pebbled beach in Penzance where I swim most mornings, there are four times as many swimmers than there were this time last year. Many of them started in the summer, struggling to find a way to exercise and stay sane through the hardships of 2020. Like me, they quickly discovered why wild swimming feels so good – along with its incredible power to help us all get through challenging times.
I started sea swimming close to home in Cornwall four years ago, and it’s changed my life for the better in so many ways. It’s made me calmer, happier, and stronger (both physically and mentally). In the sea, I’ve learnt to practice self compassion, to find resilience and courage, and to focus on what really matters. It’s changed my relationship with my body – and with nature. It even inspired me to build a whole new business around my love for the sea.
Research into the many benefits of cold water swimming is still limited, but there’s some scientific data – and lots of anecdotal evidence – about the ways in which cold water swimming can boost your physical and mental health. So here are just ten of the reasons why wild swimming has sky-rocketed in popularity over the past year.
1. Wild swimming is a great workout
Swimming works your cardiovascular system and uses every muscle in your body, without putting extra strain on your bones and joints. If you’re swimming in cold water, your body also has to keep your temperature up, burning extra calories. And when you’re shivering back on shore, you’re still using extra energy – the shivering is your body’s way of warming you up again.
2. It’s a metabolism booster
Getting into cold water triggers your ‘fight or flight’ response to an external threat (the shock of the cold). While that can make you feel anxious initially, it also increases the activity of your sympathetic nervous system, speeding up your metabolic rate.
3. It’s a stress reliever
Each time you get into cold water and experience that ‘fight or flight’ panic response, you’re getting a chance to practice soothing yourself through stress.
Quieting your mind, offering yourself self-compassion, taking it step-by-step, and learning to regulate your breath (whether that’s Wim Hof breathing or simply becoming conscious of your own breathing) are just some of the ways in which wild swimming teaches you to calm your nervous system.
As you practice those skills on every wild swim, you’re inadvertently teaching your brain and body how to breathe through the challenges of life back on land.
4. It’s an immune booster
There’s a theory that the stress of the reaction to cold water immersion also triggers an increase in white blood cell production – which provides a natural boost to your immune system. While much of the evidence for that is anecdotal, I’ve certainly found myself getting fewer colds since I started sea swimming.
Maybe it’s just the immunity boost that comes with gulping down random bacteria and bits of seaweed on a regular basis, but there’s definitely a sense that us cold water swimmers are a sturdy lot!
5. It’s a way to manage depression and low mood
When I’m feeling low, I head to the sea and wash it all away. Whatever else is going on, I always come out feeling more positive and capable of facing the challenge ahead.
A 2018 report in the British Medical Journal studied one swimmer’s successful journey to overcome depression through sea swimming. There isn’t a huge amount of scientific research into this area yet, but there’s research happening right now, and you’ll hear many personal stories of cold water swimmers overcoming mental health challenges.
6. Wild swimming is a pain reliever
Now, there’s no denying that getting into cold water can be painful – for a little while at least until you acclimatise. And yet… it’s not unlike applying an ice pack to soothe pain and reduce inflammation. Think of those ice baths we see athletes ‘indulging’ in after heavy exercise.
For me personally, sea swimming has helped to relieve the pain of my arthritis. And when I broke my foot and ankle in 2019, cold water swimming certainly aided my recovery.
7. There’s nothing like the wild swimming endorphin rush
You’ll often see cold water swimmers grinning and laughing (and in the good old days – hugging) after a swim. That’s because wild swimmers are all lovely of course – but also because cold water swimming offers something very similar to the “runner’s high” that you get after a run. Each wild swim releases endorphins, dopamine and serotonin – giving you a post-swim buzz.
8. It offers all the benefits of time in nature
The benefits of spending time in nature are well-proven. This recent report links two hours spent in nature a week to good health and wellbeing, while this summary from Mind gathers together many of nature’s evidenced benefits to our mental health. But did you know that spending time in and around water has even greater benefits?
Wallace J Nichols’ brilliant book, Blue Mind, gathers together all sorts of research into the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in ‘blue spaces’ like the sea. Blue mind time can lower stress and anxiety, increase wellbeing and creativity, and induce a sense of calm.
Nichols explains that these benefits all increase when we combine our time in nature with physical exercise – like wild swimming. Even more so, when we also do something to support the environment we love. If you combine your sea swim with a beach clean, you’re not just supporting the environment, you’re increasing the benefit to you too.
9. It’s a mindfulness practice
For many wild swimmers, their daily dip is also a moving meditation. When you’re swimming through cold water, all you can think about is the intense sensations in your body and the movement of the water around you. Everything you were worrying about before your swim just slips away for a little while.
Alert and energized, adjusting to the changing conditions, you’re brought firmly into the present moment. That’s another skill that you can take back into daily life – helping you to face whatever other challenges come up.
Inspired by my own wild swims, I create mindfulness tools at Sea Soul Blessings that draw on those blue mind benefits, helping people to gather all the gifts of time in and around the water, and apply them to their daily life.
10. It’s a community
There’s something about stripping off and finding the courage to run into the sea together that forges friendships for life.
Maybe it’s because many of us swim because we’ve faced, or are currently facing, other challenges in life – and we respect that in each other. Maybe it’s because you’re sharing something exceptional every morning. Whatever it is, you soon find yourself building a connection with strangers that goes beyond the everyday chit-chat.
My fellow sea swimmers bring me joy, laughter and connection every day. I know that if I’m having a rough day, they’ll encourage me into the sea. And I’d do the same for them.
But the feeling of belonging goes much deeper than that – swimming in the midst of nature can also bring an incredible feeling of oneness: it reminds us that we are all part of nature itself.
That sense of connection is why I always do a beach clean when I swim – and why I’ve committed to donating 10% of every sale at Sea Soul Blessings to environmental causes. Swimming through plastic pollution on a daily basis also inspired me to ensure that our products are plastic-free.
Because the more we understand all that wild swimming and that time in nature has to offer us, the more we want to protect and preserve what we love. And the more we are empowered to do so.
Wild swimming feels so good because it strengthens and supports us in all these different ways – physically, mentally and socially.
Being mindful of the risks of wild swimming
Before you dive straight in and start wild swimming, it’s important to be aware that there are also risks. Connect with experienced swimmers, and follow the advice of organizations like the Outdoor Swimming Society on acclimatisation and safe cold water swimming.
About the author
Pippa Best is the founder of Sea Soul Blessings. By creating simple transformative tools that combine mindfulness, self-compassion and nature – and investing directly in environmental projects – Sea Soul Blessings supports sea-lovers to change our own lives, and the world around us, for the better.
Pippa’s latest adventure into the sea is “a year of sea and kindness”, a monthly subscription for sea souls by post and online. Boost your resilience, and find greater calm and clarity with mindfulness resources inspired by the sea and lots of ocean inspiration to soothe you forward.
Find Pippa on Instagram @seasoulblessings, on Facebook and Twitter.