What are the health benefits of open water swimming?

Swimmers at Glen Coe. Picture: Aileen Emerson
Swimmers at Glen Coe. Picture: Aileen Emerson
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We all know that open water swimming is a bracing and invigorating form of exercise. However, many people do not know about the multitude of health benefits you stand to gain from regular outdoor swims. Whether you swim in the sea, a loch, or even a pond, there are a number of reasons why you will be healthier as a result of your efforts.

A study by Czech scientists has revealed that regular open water swimming can boost your immune system. When you jump into cold water, this acts as a shock to your body. In response to this shock, your immune system produces more white blood cells to counteract the attack. The subjects of the study were asked to bathe in cold water three times per week, and the change to their immune systems were studied. As well as finding an increased white blood cell count, the scientists discovered that other immune functions were improved by the cold water.

Another health benefit of outdoor swimming is improved circulation. This is because the heart reacts to extremes of temperature by pumping more blood to your organs. This means that circulation is better, and that impurities are more easily flushed away. A side effect of this is a better complexion, giving a healthy glow to your skin.

Sea water in particular is very good for your skin. Research published in the Skin Research and Technology journal found that sea water can help with skin conditions, such as psoriasis. This may be due to the salt and potassium chloride in the water, which ‘seals’ the skin and promotes healing. Furthermore, the British Association of Dermatologists has found that symptoms of childhood eczema are reduced when the child has regular sea swimming sessions.

Symptoms of hay fever can be relieved by swimming in the sea. The water acts as a “saline douche” for your nasal passages, removing the pollens which irritate your nose. The charity Allergy UK says that people who live by and swim in the sea tend to have better respiratory systems.

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The way we cope with physiological stresses, like cold water, can also be improved by open water swimming. A study published in the Journal of Physiology found that our breathing and heart rates increased when we experience stress, and that the rate of increase can be cut in half, using short periods of immersion in cold water.

The libido can benefit from open water swimming too, as certain studies have shown. Production of sex hormones, testosterone in men and oestrogen in women, can be increased by submersion in cold water. This was tested by measuring the sex hormones of subjects who were asked to take daily cold baths. As well as increasing libido, swimming in cold water can also increase fertility.

If you take to the sea or the loch regularly, you may reduce your stress levels. Cold water stimulates the parasympathetic system, which helps your body rest and repair itself. The release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin is associated with open water swimming. Low levels of dopamine and serotonin are found in people with depression, whereas higher levels help to keep you in a good mood.

One of the most obvious health benefits of open water swimming is the benefit of exercise. However, swimming outdoors is much better for burning calories than indoor pool swimming. Swimming in cold water makes you work every single muscle, and means that your body is trying to keep you warm at the same time. Your heart and lung function is therefore improved by regular outdoor swimming, as is muscle toning and endurance.

As you can see, the advantages of open water swimming are many, and can improve both your physical and mental health. Although the idea of wild swimming may be scary, it is well worth giving it a try.

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