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Why a dip in the sea could boost your mental health

September 2, 2021
Lucy Hussey

Mind-Matters

Submerging yourself in freezing cold water isn’t something on most people’s to do list first thing in the morning, but increasing numbers of us are discovering the mental and physical benefits of wild swimming – especially after swimming pools were closed during lockdown for COVID-19. At Lime, we are always interested in trying new things, especially when there are potential health benefits, so Lime’s Resilience and Wellbeing Champion, Lucy Hussey discovered the draw of wild swimming for herself.

Submerging yourself in freezing cold water isn’t something on most people’s to do list first thing in the morning, but increasing numbers of us are discovering the mental and physical benefits of wild swimming – especially after swimming pools were closed during lockdown for COVID-19. At Lime, we are always interested in trying new things, especially when there are potential health benefits, so Lime’s Resilience and Wellbeing Champion, Lucy Hussey discovered the draw of wild swimming for herself.

Swimming in the sea, lakes or rivers isn’t exactly new but a growing number of enthusiasts swear by the benefits of doing it regularly, no matter how cold the water might be. They cite the beauty of nature, the thrill of being out in a wild environment and there’s something else – swimming in cold water seems to have a direct impact on mental health. In fact, a case report published in the British Medical Journal Case Reports shows that it may even be an effective treatment for depression.

How could this be? Well, research is ongoing but there are two theories; one is that cold water is a stress on the body and as your body adapts to repeated exposure to cold water, so your response to all kinds of stress reduces. Current research suggests that just six three-minute swims can have an effect on your cold shock response. Another theory, is that cold water is an anti-inflammatory, so repeated exposure over time will reduce levels of inflammation, which is associated with stress, therefore improving both mental and physical health.  The exact mechanics of how this works are still being researched, but it definitely sounds like it’s worth giving it a go. Do remember that it’s important not to just jump straight in to cold water, it’s important to go in gradually to mitigate the risk of cold shock – more on that below).

My own open water swim attempt was at the coast in Dorset. The best time to start swimming outside is in late summer or early autumn when water temperatures are at their highest. I took the plunge into the sea four times in a week and was absolutely blown away by how fantastic I felt after each swim. I’ve swum or bodyboarded in the sea many times, and usually I would have said I prefer the warmth of the Mediterranean or even a tropical ocean, but there was something incredibly invigorating about being in the cold water of the English Channel. Plus, the coastline is beautiful and getting out into nature really is balm for the soul. I’m definitely hooked. Sadly, I don’t live anywhere near the sea so I’m investigating other wild swimming options closer to home. Next stop, the river Thames. Wish me luck!

Warning: You do need to be careful. Swimming out in nature, particularly in cold water below 15 degrees Celsius, has many potential dangers (and the average temperature of sea, lakes and rivers in the UK is 12 degrees Celsius!), so before trying it for the first time do your research and consider your own current health status. The RNLI has an overview of the dangers of cold shock – which is why it’s not recommended to just jump straight into cold water! The Outdoor Swimming Society has a great overview of all the safety information that you need to consider before taking your first dip and you should also speak to your doctor if you have any existing medical conditions.

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