Wild swimming: What are the health benefits?


There's nothing like an energising dip in the sea but did you know that swimming outdoors works wonders for your health and happiness? It's time to dive in

wild swimming

Most of us have enjoyed the thrill of an energising dip in the sea – and in the UK, thanks to an abundance of rivers and lakes and long stretches of unspoiled coast, we don’t have to go far to find a beautiful wild swimming spot.

But it’s not just the spectacular views and connection with nature that entice growing numbers of people to swim outdoors.

Anecdotally, wild swimmers say health conditions have improved and they feel happier and more energised, and a slew of scientific studies backs this up – which might explain why, at the last count, the UK’s Outdoor Swimming Society had around 27,000 members.

Wild swimming has been linked to lower stress levels and enhanced happiness – and, says Kate Rew, Outdoor Swimming Society founder, best of all – it’s free.

“Wild swimming costs nothing and is a great mood changer. There’s no experience like it and every time is different".

Here are four reasons it might be time to dip your toe in the wild water.

Boosts your mood

Wild swimming has long been hailed by evangelists as a life tonic, and now a raft of studies point to its powerful, mood-boosting properties, and even suggest it may help ease symptoms of depression. Why?

Experts say that plunging into cold water regularly relieves stress and anxiety by promoting the release of the “happy hormones” serotonin and dopamine.

“All wild-dippers know the natural endorphin high that raises mood, elates the senses and creates an addictive urge to dive back in,” says wild swimming expert Daniel Start.

“However the world seemed before a swim, it looks fantastic afterwards.”

Calms inflammation

Studies suggest that regular cold-water swimming decreases inflammation – a condition that is linked to a raft of ailments from aches and pains to high blood pressure, arthritis and depression. Why?

It’s all down to a process called cold water adaptation, which happens through regular swimming in cold water.

“By adapting to cold stress, your response to that cold stress becomes less marked, and we think that this adaptation may help high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and arthritis, by reducing inflammation in the body,” says Dr Mark Harper, consultant anaesthetist at Brighton and Sussex Hospitals and keen swimmer.

Reduces stress

An overload of the stress hormone cortisol can have a negative effect on health.

This leads to anxiety, poor sleep and digestive problems, so it’s important to keep it in check – and wild swimming can help us do just that.

It’s all down to the cold water adaption process again.

Experts say that when you train your body to handle shock, pain and discomfort through repeated immersion in cold water, it can deal with smaller stresses more easily; regular, cold water dips reduce our reactions to stress and lower cortisol levels in our body. 

Mindful movement

When you’re swimming in cold water, you have no choice but to be in the moment. You're focusing on your breathing, the feeling of cold water on your skin, the natural world around you.

In short, wild swimming helps us disconnect from our busy lives. And exercising outdoors rather than inside has an additional benefit – recent research suggests that spending 120 minutes a week in nature will also give your wellbeing a boost.

“Modern life just drifts away from you,” says Kate Rew. “All the deadlines and worries that come from being a social human being just become utterly irrelevant. It’s just you and swimming.” 

Related: Everything you need to know about swimming with Ellie Simmonds

Share This Article