Between closures, on a miserable, cold January day, I drove to Clevedon, a coastal town near my home on the Bristol Channel. I wrapped myself in warm clothes and walked to Marine Lake, a saltwater pool built on the natural coast. To my surprise, I saw a group of laughing women come out of the icy water. Chattering and chatting, they awkwardly pulled their clothes under their towels. I stood up and watched in disbelief: it was cold, but they were gloating, defying the weather as they went for a swim.
During the pandemic, the hobby of outdoor swimming was rediscovered
Swimming has always been a popular sport in the UK, with tales of 16th century knights struggling to paddle in full armor and Victorians embracing dives in the sea. But during the pandemic, the hobby of swimming in outdoors has been rediscovered. Public pools closed and people couldn’t travel, so they looked closer to home for opportunities to swim, spiking interest and increasing club memberships.
From Scotland to Cornwall, people have explored seas, lakes, lochs and rivers in greater numbers than ever. Whether it’s walking past a stately home by the River Derwent (afternoon tea in Chatsworth, fancy it?), Dodging monsters at Loch Ness, or diving into the Blue Wales Lagoon In Pembrokeshire, the UK’s wild swimming spots are as varied as they are beautiful. – even if the water temperature calls for a certain level of bravery.
It seems that swimming and being outdoors is not only beneficial for your physical health, but can also be beneficial for your mental well-being.
My brother-in-law, Mark Woolfrey, is a dedicated outdoor swimmer who goes out with like-minded friends no matter the season or the weather. “We swim all year round in the wonderful Cromhall Quarry in Gloucestershire, but for adventure we head to the coast,” he said. Most memorable at Watcombe Beach (between Torquay and Shaldon) with its Jade Grotto and Bell Rock and much more a short distance away. The coast here has the beautiful but vulnerable red sandstone cliffs dotted with boulders of breach below. “
It’s a simple, inexpensive hobby with minimal equipment. Getting involved can be as easy as downloading a map of the UK’s best wilderness swimming spots, grab a cossie and go. Many open swimmers, new and veteran, have joined open water swimming groups, and there are even organized trips to favorite swimming spots along the UK’s expansive coastline.
According to Outdoor Swimmer magazine’s annual report, searches for the term “wild swimming” – which refers to “swimming (or bathing) in rivers, lakes, pools, the sea, etc.” ; usually in more remote locations without lifeguard supervision, ”according to magazine founder Simon Griffith – increased 94% between 2019 and 2020. Wild swimming provided an opportunity to exercise, explore the local countryside and even to visit new places in search of different waters.
Although wild swimming does not require any membership, UK swimming clubs and groups have also seen a resurgence of interest during the pandemic. Outdoor Swimming Society membership increased 36% in 2020. Bluetits Chill Swimmers, based in North Pembrokeshire, has gained 8,000 new Facebook followers in the past year. And, according to Outdoor Swimmer magazine’s annual report, more than half of new swimmers enjoyed the experience more than they expected.
It was a life changing moment
But fun is not the only reason people engage in this hobby. It seems that swimming and being outdoors is not only beneficial for your physical health, but can also be beneficial for your mental well-being. A study published in the British Medical Journal Case Reports provided the first case report that swimming in cold water may be an effective treatment for depression. The theory behind this is that one form of stress – that is, the shock of cold water – adapts the body to another, in this case the stress response associated with depression and anxiety. .
Although more evidence is needed to support the hypothesis, some people have formed their own swimming groups based on their own experiences. In the summer of 2020, Chris Reeves founded Win the Morning, Win the Day, a group that runs morning walks on the beach followed by a swim in the sea, while breaking the stigma surrounding mental health by talking openly about it. . The group started in the town of Gosport and has seen sister groups grow across the UK, in cities like Leeds and Manchester, and even overseas, in Bahrain.
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Rachel Ashe, founder and director of Mental Health Swims, who suffers from mental health issues from childhood trauma, accidentally discovered the benefits of swimming in cold water. On a whim, she joined a New Years bath near her home on Portobello beach near Edinburgh. “I ran into the sea with 100 other people and then felt this incredible calm that I hadn’t felt in years,” she told me. “It was a life-changing moment. I now know that the calm I felt was the action of my natural pain relievers, because getting into cold water is incredibly stressful on your body.”
Inspired to share her experience, Ashe invited others to join her at the first Mental Health Swims meeting in Caswell Bay in September 2019. As mental health issues increased during the pandemic, interest in the group has also grown. “We started the pandemic with just one swim and now have over 80 swim meets across the UK and beyond,” Ashe said.
However, while outdoor swimming can help your physical and mental health, Ashe cautions that it should not be seen as a panacea: “I think the idea that cold water is the miracle cure for illness. mentality is a dangerous narrative and another way to make stigmatized people feel like they’re not doing enough. ”And, she added, the outdoor swimming movement has a long way to go. before reaching anyone who might benefit from its effects. “I believe we should allow everyone – people of all skin colors, ages, sexes, sexualities, backgrounds and abilities – to find solace in outside.”
Groups are generally open to anyone who wants to swim, but according to Swim England 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in the UK do not swim. British swimmer Alice Dearing, a specialist in open water events and co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, is trying to solve the problem by raising awareness. In a March 2020 article, she told the BBC: “I’m a big fan of portrayal. I don’t think you can be something that you can’t see. People won’t naturally take to swimming. if they can’t see someone who naturally looks like them. “
As more diverse groups of people discover outdoor swimming, the results of ongoing research into its mental health benefits will become more comprehensive. Currently, a team from the University of Portsmouth is closely monitoring cold water swimmers and collecting testimonials from members of the Outdoor Swimming Society on the benefits of swimming in cold water for conditions such as depression, anxiety , arthritis, symptoms of menopause, MS and migraines. .
With more Britons than ever taking up outdoor swimming for health reasons, they also appreciate the sense of community this hobby brings. As Simon Griffiths said: “Swimming is not just something you do. Being a swimmer is something you are.”
And with so many people struggling with mental health issues, pandemic-related and the like, there has never been a better time to bathe outdoors.
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