How To Swim Yourself Happy!
Swimming is a great way to get some exercise, but did you know that swimming can be as good for your mind as it is for your body?
1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health condition at some point during their lifetime. The chances are that either you or someone you know has struggled personally with their mental health. While nothing can take the place of professional care, swimming can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Even if you don’t suffer from a specific mental health condition, getting in water can still improve your mood, reduce your stress, and generally help you to unwind!
Swimming has significantly reduced the symptoms of anxiety or depression for 1.4 million adults in the UK. Almost half a million British adults with mental health problems have stated that the number of visits to a medical professional regarding their mental health has reduced as a result of swimming! (YouGov poll commissioned by Swim England (2018)) It is definitely giving regular swimming a try!
8 ways swimming can improve your mental health:
1. Swimming is excellent for your fitness.
Swimming is good for your body, and a healthy body is good for the mind! Being active has a positive impact on mental health including: improving mood, increasing self-esteem, lowers the risk of depression, slows dementia and cognitive decline, improves sleep and reduces stress. Swimming is a great cardio workout that engages your muscles while having a low-impact on your joints making it a great fitness option for everyone!
Swimming encourages you to appreciate what your body is capable of. This is particularly true of open water swimming and swimming in cold water. In open water, you can swim at your own pace and in your own space without counting laps or getting in anyone’s way. Swimming outdoors feels free and satisfying and your mind it occupied with the environment as much as with the actual swimming.
2. Swimming releases endorphins
Swimming, like all exercise, prompts your brains to release natural feel-good hormones called endorphins. Your nervous system produces endorphins to help you deal with stress, and these compounds can alleviate pain, increase positivity, and bring about a sense of wellbeing and happiness. Swimming in cold water, even if it not vigorous, will bring about the same effect! These great feelings remain after you finish your swim and is often referred to by swimmers as ‘After Glow’.
3. Swimming in nature is even more beneficial
Combine these feel-good endorphins with the restorative qualities of being in the nature –waves lapping, sunlight sparking, birds singing, beautiful surroundings – and you can double the wellbeing effect! Research suggests that immersing yourself in natural water in the open air is particularly good for positive mental wellbeing.
4. Swimming reduces stress & anxiety
There is evidence that swimming can reduce stress, even more so than other sports. Swimming for just 30 minutes, three days a week has be shown to lower stress levels, improve sleep patterns, and lower anxiety and depression.
‘Blue Mind’ is a term associated with water-related calm and peace. The idea is that humans are naturally drawn to blue space. This leads to a feeling of well being and calmness when we are in or around bodies of water. Water makes up 70% of our bodies and covers about 75% of the earth’s surface, so the theory is our brains naturally have an positive response when we’re near water. Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author of the book Blue Mind, says:
“Research has shown that being near, in, on or under water can provide a long list of benefits for our mind and body, including lowering stress and anxiety, increasing an overall sense of well-being and happiness, a lower heart and breathing rate, and safe, better workouts. Aquatic therapists are increasingly looking to the water to help treat and manage PTSD, addiction, anxiety disorders, autism and more.”
Furthermore, just the sound of water can induce a flood of neuro chemicals that make you happier, healthier and less stressed out! Who doesn’t love listening to the sound of waves breaking on the beach or a trickling stream?
5. Swimming is soothing
Swimming gives you a break from the hustle and bustle of day to day life and takes your mind off your worries by forcing you to focus on the task at hand. During swimming is one of the rare times you can feel free from technology and this break from your phone and screen time also helps to alleviate stress and encourages relaxation and creativity.
Anxiety and stress can cause you to take rapid, shallow breaths, but swimming regulates your breathing, which can lower blood pressure and release tension. Swimming can feel like a kind of meditation, especially when you are surrounded by the tranquil beauty of a natural body of water. The feeling of water moving over your body creates a massage-like sensation.
6. Swimming can bost your body confidence
Body confidence can be a big barrier stopping many people from trying swimming. In a world where we are surrounded by media images of ‘body beautiful’ its no wonder we can often feel we are not good enough to put on a swimming costume. Body image is one of the main reasons that people in the UK do not go swimming! But those photoshopped images are false and unattainable so getting together with a group of real bodies in swimming costumes can really help to give a more realistic and balanced vision of how a body should be! Everyone has a few wobbly bits, hairy bits, scars or bits they don’t like to show but when you swim you are all on show together.
Groups of open water swimmers are especially friendly, welcoming and nonjudgemental. For many it’s not so much about the sport but the experience of being in the water. The secret that most people who swim regularly know is that the more time you spend in a costume, the less you care about how you look. How you can move, what you can see, what you feel, all these become priority. In a group of swimmers you’ll see a diverse range of shapes, sizes and ages. There is no point comparing yourself to anyone else!
If you’re reluctant to try swimming because of how you feel about your body, ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? What if you accept your body and go to the lake or a pool? How good would that feel? Imagine what you’d miss out on if you let your body concerns stop you from experiencing.
If you still don’t feel confident enough to get completely undress you could wear a rash vest, a leg suit or try out a wetsuit. Once you do you will soon start to build up more confidence. Once you’re in the water you will feel happy, no-one is staring, its just about having fun.
7. Swimming can be a solo or social
Swimming is something you can do by yourself, which is great because you can go when you want and you don’t have to rely on anyone else, yet humans are social creatures, and connecting with others is important for our mental health. While you will benefit from the peaceful practice of swimming alone, isolating yourself is not always the best thing to do. You can also join a swimming club or swim based fitness sessions at the pool (there are often organised clubs at pools and loads of open water swimming groups on Facebook that welcome new members) or go swimming with a friend. Many open water swimming venues are staying open over the winter this year due to increased demand so you can check to see if there are any local to you. If you swim outdoors somewhere there are no life guards it is really important for your safety that you swim with someone else or at least have someone watching you from the shore and swim with a tow float.
Visit www.mentalhealthswims.co.uk who are a friendly and inclusive community of swimmers with personal experience of mental health issues who organise regular open water swim meet-ups for peer support around the UK. You don’t even have to swim, just go along for a paddle and a chat to find out more about it.
Note: During the Covid-19 outbreak, it is important to practice social distancing and follow your current local and government guidelines. Some areas are in lockdown and pools may be shut at times so always check if you can safely and legally go swimming outdoors.
8. Swimming in cold water gives you an extra boost
Because swimming is a low-impact exercise, people of all ages, fitness levels, and physical abilities, as well as those with injuries can take part. Cold water has been shown to ease the pain of injuries, inflammation, and sore muscles.
There have been a number of studies of the effects of cold water on the immune system. These studies have shown successfully that cold water helps to boost the white blood cell count (the cells of the immune system that are involved in protecting the body against both infection and disease) because the body is forced to react to changing conditions. Over time, your body becomes better at activating it’s defences. This means that taking cold dips could help build up resistance to illnesses like colds and the flu (do not get into cold water if you are already ill though, it will do you more harm than good!).
Cold water swimming also stimulates blood flow. When you immerse your body in cold water, the blood rushes to your core to protect your vital organs. Your heart then is forced to pump more efficiently, pushing blood through all your vessels and supplying every part of your body with the oxygen and nutrients it needs. Do this regularly and you will promote healthy circulation, and, ultimately, a healthy body, heart, and mind.
So, with so many mental and physical benefits to swimming, why not give it a go?
Take a look at our Swim Yourself Happy Challenge, running between November 2020 and February 2021, and join in with our experiment to see if a regular swim can reduce your stress and give you a boost of happiness?
Reach out for support
Swimming is a great way to improve your mental health, but nothing is as effective as speaking to someone who is trained to help. If you are suffering from mental health problems, there is help available. Reach out to a friend or relative, speak to your GP or a professional counsellor. You can also contact www.mind.org.uk or call Samaritans on 116 123 if you need to talk to someone urgently.
Written by Chloë, Love SwimRun Organiser, 25/10/20