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Benefits of wild swimming for your mental health – it’s more than an exercise routine!

Jul 22, 2022

Many self-proclaimed ‘outdoorsy types’ have long been preaching the benefits of wild swimming. However in 2019, the British Medical Journal published a study showing that going for a chilly dip can actually help those suffering with mental health conditions such as depression, even when medication hasn’t.

If the warmer weather has got you wondering if now is the time to start your wild swimming journey, you’re not alone. It’s never too late to embrace your local lake, river or sea and experience the benefits for yourself.

What is wild swimming?

Wild swimming is as simple as it sounds, you swim in a body of wild water. You need no special equipment (but we highly recommend a thick jumper and a flask of hot chocolate to warm yourself up afterwards!). If you’re feeling brave, you can ditch the wetsuit and go in a swimming costume, but lots of wild swimmers prefer to have the extra layer.

“In our grandparents’ day, swimming holes were where people learnt to swim and congregated on a summer day – to paddle, picnic and play. Today there is a resurgence of interest in this traditional pleasure and people are learning to explore their rivers and lakes for swimming again,” says Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming.

Wild Swimming Improves Your Connection to Nature

The 5 Ways to Wellbeing are evidence-based ways you can improve your mental health, they are: Take Notice, Connect, Be Active, Give and Keep Learning.

If you start wild swimming, you can tick off ‘Take Notice’ as you notice how cold the water feels (in the winter especially!) as well as how you feel when you get out of the water and start to warm up. You’re also ‘Being Active’ by doing physical exercise, as well as walking to your swim spot, and you get to tick off ‘Connect’ as well if you go with a friend or family member!

By completing immersing ourselves in nature, more specifically a body of water, it helps us reconnect to our natural surroundings and switch off our minds from our daily stresses and anxieties. Both wild swimming and connecting with nature has a proven connection with improving mental wellbeing.

The Mental Health Benefits of Wild Swimming

As we mentioned, going swimming in the wild helps you reconnect with nature, as well as getting you to ‘Be Active’ – but what are the other benefits of immersing yourself in a chilly body of natural water?

It can help you sleep better 😴​

Open water swimming can help you have a deeper sleep. Anecdotal evidence suggests that swimming in open water can help to improve the quality of your sleep, help you relax more and give you a sense of contentment, however there is currently no scientific study to back up this claim.

It has potential to boost your mood 😄​

Anecdotal evidence from a study conducted in 2020 suggests that outdoor swimming can improve mood. The study examined the mood and well-being in participants attending an outdoor swimming course. The participants in the study had found their negative moods decreased, and saw an increase in well-being and significant increases in positive mood.

It could help to clear brain fog 😨​

Whilst no scientific studies have currently been done, regular cold-water swimmers say that immersing yourself in cold water (especially if you brave it in winter months!) can clear brain fog. Fearne Cotton, presenter and mental health advocate, says wild swimming gives her a ‘sense of clarity and exhilaration.’ Other wild swimmers have talked of the benefits, saying they feel like new once they emerge, and like they have a glow surrounding them for days afterwards.

It helps relieve symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression 😩​​

In one of the most famous studies of cold-water swimming, a 24-year-old woman, who was suffering with symptoms of a major depressive disorder and anxiety that were resistant to medical treatments. Her doctors prescribed her a programme of weekly open (cold) water swimming to trial, which led to an immediate improvement in mood following each swim, and a sustained and gradual reduction in her symptoms of depression. One year later, she remains medication free and says she feels like a “weight has been lifted.”

The scientists behind the report attribute this change to the way cold-water immersion trains the “fight or flight mode in your body. Initially, dipping into cold water puts your body under stress and produces a shock response. But on repeated exposure to cold water, you diminish this stress response. Having a better rein on your stress response means you’re able to better cope when faced with any stress that life throws at you.”

Tips to begin your wild swimming journey

Before you go and jump into the nearest lake, make sure you read our Top Tips for your first time wild swimming, as well as our Safety Tips further down.

  1. Warm up beforehand – this could be a hearty walk to your swim spot, this will help to increase your heart rate and body heat, which will prevent you from going into cold water shock when entering the water. It will also help to loosen your muscles, improving your flexibility during swimming.
  2. Wear a wetsuit if you’re concerned about how cold you’ll feel in just a swimming costume! It’s also good to bring a pair of shoes that you’re comfortable getting wet, whether it’s a pair of old trainers, or a pair designed for the water, in case there are rocks to navigate over.
  3. Get in slowly! Even the most seasoned swimmers feel the chill of the water when they first get in. Splashing some water on your face, arms and chest before fully immersing yourself can help you adjust to it. You should never jump into the water as this can send you into cold water shock.
  4. Don’t push yourself too hard. If you’ve never done wild swimming before, you won’t be able to stay in the water for more than a few minutes (and that’s normal!).
  5. Once you get out, make sure to strip off out of your wet clothes and put warm, dry clothes on immediately. Some wild swimmers like to bring a flask of tea or hot chocolate with them to warm up with afterwards.
  6. Always wait at least 10 minutes to warm up before walking or driving home, this will give your body time to get warm internally before you head off.

Safety Tips ⚠️​

  1. Never swim alone. If you’ve got friends who might be interested, get them to come along, this means if you get into trouble whilst swimming, you’ve got people who can help. If your friends aren’t keen, you can find local, wild swimming groups where likeminded people get together to go for swims. This way you’re with a group of people who are experienced and likely know the best (and safest) areas to wild swim.
  2. Never swim in canals, flood water, stagnant lakes or reedy shallows. Be aware of any warning signs in some bodies of water as you may not be able to swim inside the water. It helps to check this ahead of time to save any wasted journeys.
  3. Keep cuts and wounds covered with waterproof plasters.
  4. Avoid contact with the local wildlife.
  5. Always work out how you’re going to get out before you get in.
  6. Never jump into the water.

Whilst the scientific benefits of wild swimming are still being explored, a combination of the studies already conducted and anecdotal evidence from swimmers suggest that the effects of wild swimming on mental health are numerous. If you’re looking for something new and fun to try to boost your mental wellbeing, maybe try asking a few friends if they’d be up for a dip!

Not sure that wild swimming’s for you? If you’re someone that prefers to keep themselves dry and warm whilst looking after their mental health, why don’t you check out our 5 Ways to Wellbeing, or try one of our free, online courses, no wetsuit needed!

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