How open-water swimming helps my mental health

September 25th is National Fitness Day and I thought I’d share how a certain kind of exercise helps me stay well in the head. I never would have thought the icy depths of Cumbria’s lakes would be anything other than scenery, but with the help of wetsuits, and others who share a love of swimming, I too have come to love a chilly dip (not with nachos). There must be something in it because proper scientists are running a study to see what the effect of open water swimming is on mental health.

  • Biochemistry – There is a powerful physical process that happens when you put your body and/or face into cold water. Your vagal nerve is stimulated, your heart rate slowed and your body relaxes. I think this goes someway to explaining the calmed, satisfied feeling that follows a dip in a lake. If you don’t fancy taking the full lake plunge, a similar effect can be produced by putting your face in ice cold water, or an ice pack on your cheek or eyes. Add that to the endorphins (lovely happy hormones) your body produces when you do any exercise and it’s powerful chemical cocktail, and one which won’t give you a hangover.

  • It wakes me up – a lot related to the above point but the jolting shock of the cold water is the one thing capable of properly waking me up when I’m in a foggy mess. Some of the tablets I take make me very sleepy, and when I’ve been up in the night with my daughter, the icy water clears away the mist.

  • The sense of achievement – I don’t mean any great sporting prowess or speed. I don’t compete, or take part in triathlons – I can’t even swim front crawl. I don’t even put my head fully in the water. It’s the amazing feeling of overcoming your fears, braving the initial icy shock, finding some will power to bear the discomfort and get to the other side. And the other side is majestic and uplifting. Being in the water, in the middle of a lake, however graceless your strokes are, however badly you feel about your body, makes you feel strong and alive.

  • Joy can lie the other side of hardship – Related to the previous point but more so. When you have a tendency to depression as I do, it can sometimes feel like life is a big long endurance test. You become numb to positives and suck up negatives like a parched desert drinks the rain. In fact, I think depression is sometimes my mind’s way of saying “I can’t take any more”. That’s why the process of pain, endurance, tolerance then finally pleasure is so important. It helps my body understand what my brain cannot: that life can be happy and fun, even if it is also painful and hard.

  • The hunger – It’s the kind of hunger you had as a kid after going swimming or playing out all day or building sandcastles on the beach. Not the hunger of boredom or sadness or stress. And being able to eat and know your body needs the food is great.

  • The beauty – I’m lucky to live so close to the Lake District. I have always loved the scenery and walking up fells. But there is something special about being inside the landscape. You eye level on the water, like a dark infinity pool sliding away, the purple fells rising above you, the swallows wheeling on the crests of the waves.

How does exercise, however gentle or hard, help your mental health?

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