Swimming for mental health

“It makes me feel young, healthy and silly”: Swimming for mental health

In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week (15-21 May), the Outdoor Swimmer team share their experiences of what open water swimming does for their wellbeing

A recent study shows that nine in 10 people (89%) feel positive benefits being in or near water, whether that is improving their mental health, lifting their mood, or calming their anxiety.*

In fact, one in 10 people say that being in or around blue spaces has benefited their personal lives and fixed relationship issues, while 27% of people say they sleep better afterwards.

In our survey of swimmers last year, we asked ‘why do you swim outdoors?”. The top response for women, and the second highest reason for men, was ‘for mental health and general wellbeing. For more on this, see our Trends in Outdoor Swimming report.

We, the Outdoor Swimmer team, are passionate about advocating the mental health benefits of swimming in open water, and the importance of blue spaces in our communities. Here’s what a few members of our team have to say about what outdoor swimming does for their wellbeing:

“The best word to sum up outdoor swimming for me is JOY. It is so much fun.

Life is hard, adulting is serious business. Swimming outside is childlike and playful. Water brings out curiosity and joyful behaviour. Dipping, diving, jumping and sliding over/under rocks. Seeking wildlife, wondering what that plant is or what kind of bird you can hear. Collecting shells, pebbles and natural treasures. Being so engaged with the environment, I can sense seasonal changes.

I love the incredible beauty I witness. Floating on my back and looking up at a tree canopy, clouds or stars at night. Being barefoot, a bit feral and wild. And I love having duck-poo between my toes and grazes on my legs from wild encounters!”

Ella Foote, editor of Outdoor Swimmer

“Swimming takes me out of my day-to-day life, juggling work, kids, the house, etc. It makes me feel young, healthy and silly.”

Yvonne Turner, commercial director for Outdoor Swimmer

“I struggle with PMS – it’s gotten worse in recent years. For a few days of the month, I’m plagued by anxious thoughts, stress and a horrible feeling of low self-confidence. It takes a lot of motivation for me to get my stuff ready and haul myself down to my local lake when all I really feel like doing is flopping onto the sofa under a duvet. But when I get into that water, it feels like someone is pouring a cooling balm onto my hot, fizzing brain. The whirring, jarring thoughts just melt away, and my furrowed brow transforms into the biggest smile. I roll, I splash, I play and giggle. It instils a calm, blissful feeling in me that lasts the rest of the day.”

Abi Whyte, digital journalist for Outdoor Swimmer

“I feel very lucky that I’ve never had to face any serious mental health issues but I do know that outdoor swimming leaves me feeling calm, refreshed and ready to face the day ahead. However, I have witnessed the distress that a mental health illness causes in those affected and their friends and families. While outdoor swimming can’t replace professional treatment, there is anecdotal evidence that it provides relief for some mental health conditions. I’d love to see that explored more rigorously and for outdoor swimming to be offered through social prescribing where appropriate.”

Simon Griffiths, founder of Outdoor Swimmer

As well as being in or near blue spaces for benefiting mental health, focusing on our breathing can help with tiredness, tension or anxiety, and boost energy and focus. Read Liz Lowe’s guide to how to breathe better.

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*Research conducted by leisure operator Better

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Abi writes swimming news stories and features for the Outdoor Swimmer website and manages the social media channels. She loves to swim, run, hike and SUP close to her home in Herefordshire. While she’s a keen wild swimmer, Abi is new to the world of open water events and recently completed her first open water mile. She has previously written for The Guardian, BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC History Magazine and Ernest Journal.