5 health benefits of open water swimming

Monday mornings have never been my friend. Waving goodbye to the weekend and embracing chaos, stress and work has never been my thing. But recently, something changed and they are now my favourite part of the week. Why? Because for the past few weeks I’ve been swimming in a local river every Monday morning. And not only have my Mondays improved, but my entire week. Before telling me I must be mad, have a look at the amazing things open water swimming does for you.

I’ve also interspersed a few photos of the places I’ve swam in recent years. Because a picture really does speak a thousand words.

Silhouette of a dog sitting on a beach at an open water swimming spot in Pembrokeshire

1. Open water swimming makes you happy

No, that’s not just me telling you how happy I am about my weird hobby, it’s a fact. Did you see a BBC documentary called The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs? The effect of cold water swimming on depression was featured in the documentary. It is also discussed in much more detail by Dr Mark Harper in this video.

Whilst Dr Harper is a keen open water swimmer himself and therefore somewhat biased, he has done a lot of research around the effect of swimming outdoors on mental health. And it’s not just about the euphoria factor or the sense of achievement. Dr Harper mentions the link between inflammation and depression, and the use of cold water as a drug-free way to treat depression due to the anti-inflammatory effect of the water.

Open water swimming spot at a small beach on Loch Leven in Scotland

2. Open water swimming makes you healthy

This one seems a little far fetched to me, but I have heard on numerous occasions that people who regularly swim outdoors get fewer illnesses. Colds are the classic example. In fact, Dr harper has written about the fact that there may be some truth in this.

Czech scientists investigated the effect of cold water swimming on the immune system. They found that getting into cold water shocks the body into producing more white blood cells and improves other immune functions. Getting used to the stress reaction of your body when it is submersed in cold water is also said to improve the way your body deals with other forms of stress.

A view of blue sea and Porthsele, a Pembrokeshire open water swimming beach near Pencarnan farm campsite

3. It’s a great way to burn fat

It is said that wild swimming is great for weight loss. Which makes sense, because being in cold water means your body has to work hard to stay warm. To do so, it needs to burn calories or fat to provide energy. Whilst I can understand why this is the case, I can’t say I’m ever likely to lose weight from open water swimming.

By the time I’ve swam in the river for an hour and a half, I am absolutely ravenous. If I allowed myself, I could walk away from the river and devour breakfast, lunch and dinner without pausing for breath in between meals. This would be swiftly followed by an entire cake. I think my chances of losing weight are minimal, even in the coldest of temperatures.

An open water swimming spot in Pembrokeshire - a beach at sunset with rocks covered in seaweed in foreground

4. May offer relief from injuries and pain

Swimming in general is great for injury recovery. You can exercise without putting unnecessary pressure on the injury. However, cold water swimming can offer further benefits. I’ve read a couple of times now about people who have found chronic pain to be reduced following open water swimming. Including this gentleman, who attributes his miraculous recovery from chronic pain to swimming in the sea.

Open water swimming spot on the Isle of Wight photo taken from cliff top looking down onto beach and sea

5. Swimming in open water is the ultimate in relaxation

Ok, hear me out. I know that diving into a freezing cold river / lake / sea doesn’t sound relaxing. However, science has shown that exercising in a natural environment is better for your mental health than exercising in other environments. And there’s really no better way to be completely submersed in nature than wild swimming.

For me, it’s also the perfect way to switch off from everything else. Life is busy, as it is for all of us. I rarely do one thing at a time. But when I’m swimming in the river, all that changes. My friend and I spend most of our time swimming upstream. We don’t get far because of the strong current, but we potter around in beautiful surroundings.

No phones to distract us, no children to nag. Work can wait, someone else can take care of any problems that arise. Much like the feeling you get in a luxurious spa, but more natural and accessible. It costs nothing, it’s not indulgent and I don’t feel guilty for doing it. In fact, I’d recommend it to anyone.

My usual open water swimming spot photographed at sunset with river in foreground

How to swim safely in open water

If you are thinking of swimming in open water, check out my outdoor swimming tips including how, why and what equipment you need. You can also head to the Open Water Swimming Society website for advice and to find organised swims. They have a great blog and can advise the best places to swim and how to do so safely. It’s particularly important never to swim alone, and only swim in water you know to be safe. For recommendations of where to swim, head to the Wild Swim map of the UK. I have also written a blog post with advice on open water swimming in the UK.

Health benefits of open water swimming | It may seem like a bad idea diving into a river, lake or the sea. But open water swimming is becoming increasingly popular around the world and the benefits for both mental and physical health are incredible. Find out how wild swimming in open water could help you. Whether you are a swimmer, triathlete, fitness fanatic, chronic pain sufferer or you want to exercise to lose weight, this emerging sport could be for you. #openwater #wildswim #swimming #sport #exercise #health #fitness

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  1. LOVE this post.

    As you know we are surrounded by so many open water swimming options but I have this somewhat irrational fear that I am going to freak out, panic and look like a right plonker! So, although I would love to try this, I don’t because I am a wuss.
    Maybe I should try baby steps and find a small pool to dip my toes in first….

    1. I think once you’ve given it a go, you’ll get into it. Loch Leven is a great start because where we went is a very shallow graduation into the lake so if you just want to paddle that’s fine and if you feel like getting in for a swim you can do so when you’re ready.

  2. Hi Nat, it sound like the perfect way to start the week, I can imagine how good you feel afterwards. I do remember reading an article on the swimmers who swim year round in the Serpentine and I was surprised how many health benefits could be reaped from swimming in cold water, even for a short space of time. There are people I call ‘nutters’ here who swim in the sea year round and you know what? I’d love to give it a go too, but it takes me forever to get in for a swim now let alone January! Maybe one day. I would worry about my asthma as the cold water could bring on an attack, but I was once advised that if ever I do brave the sea in winter, don’t put my head under.. Sharks don’t like cold water, do they?


  3. I did not know that open water swimming would offer so many health benefits, and I love that you start your week off with a swim that sets you up for the week, I love swimming, but could I be brave enough to do it ? x

    1. You definitely could Tracey, I’ve been again this morning and can honestly say that it makes me feel a million times better, less stressed and sets me up for the week. Plus, the whole family have been ill over the past couple of weeks and it has passed me by. Apparently open water swimming helps the immune system and I would usually pick things like this up so I’m taking that as a win.

    1. You really should, it’s brilliant! They’d need to be very strong swimmers to get in the river, I’d suggest a lake is probably a better place to start.

  4. My kids all learned to swim in nearby Damarascotta Lake, and just yesterday, my oldest son and his wife bought their first State Park Pass to facilitate a season’s worth of great swimming for their tiny family.

  5. This is brilliant. As you know I’ve recently tried wild swimming and I loved it! The cold water is so amazing. I have been every week since (4 times!) and it really does make me feel good. The only worry I have is that now, due to all hot weather, we have a notice near us warning against swimming due to bacteria in the still, pond like water so I need to find a new spot! I wish I lived closer to the sea. #mixitup

  6. I totally agree with article!
    I swim every day for 10 mins max in my local lake.
    My immune system is much better, my nerve pain in my arm disappears, I feel energised after.
    Important to wrap up well after and I find any longer than 10 mins in winter the cold gets into your bones too much.
    It’s a super thing to do.

  7. Hi I am thinking of joining a wild swim in a river this summer ! It’s a group organised thing . You can hire a wetsuit . I’m looking forward to it . At least hopefully they will check river is ok to swim in . No dead fish floating about or anything ! That’s what puts me off jumping in any old river I think . The thought of what could be floating around near your face !

    1. Yes I can understand why that would put you off! We always have a good stare at the river before we get in and have never encountered anything unpleasant. I do hope you enjoy your first swim, it’s quite addictive once you try it!