A man in a swimming pool.
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The mental health benefits of swimming

We all know the physical benefits of swimming, including improved muscle tone and enhanced heart health. But did you know that there are specific benefits for our emotional wellbeing, too?

There’s been an increasing amount of research into swimming and health in recent years, driven, perhaps, by the rising popularity of outdoor swimming.

What many of these studies have found is that swimming can have specific mental health benefits – and that you can in fact enjoy these benefits whether you’re swimming indoors or outside.

What’s more, you don’t need to embark on a lengthy pool session in order to enhance your emotional wellness.

“Even after just ten minutes you’ll start to feel the benefits of being in the water,” says triathlete Rachel Rutherford. “You might find that after a while you naturally like to swim for longer as you begin to realise the fitness improvements.”

Of course, swimming is not the sole solution to improving emotional wellbeing. But if you’ve been considering starting to swim or increasing your existing pool time, here are seven good reasons to do so.

1. Reduced anxiety

Silhouette of a person splashing in an outdoor body of water against the sunset.

Simply being in water can benefit your emotional wellbeing, according to a review of recent studies on hydrotherapy. The researchers found that there’s evidence that aquatic therapy can help reduce anxiety and depression.

2. Improved mood

As with other forms of exercise, swimming causes our bodies to release endorphins, those feel-good hormones that give us a feeling of wellbeing. The difference with swimming is that for some people, it feels like an easier option on a low-mood day than, say, a HIIT class or bike ride.

“Swimming is a gentle form of exercise, making it the perfect choice when you are feeling unmotivated and lower on energy,” says Rachel. “It helps to improve your mood, and like all exercise helps to relieves stress.”

3. A break from the everyday

A person swimming alone in a lane in an outdoor pool.

In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, novelist Haruki Murakami describes running as a sort of moving meditation that allows him to experience nothing but the present moment. The same can also be true of swimming.

Focus on your technique and the sensation of the water, and hopefully any other thoughts will temporarily melt away.

4. Lowered stress

Studies suggest swimming can regulate levels of cortisol, leaving you better able to manage everyday stress.

What’s more, it’s pretty much impossible to use a phone or tablet while swimming. Given that excessive screen use has been linked to higher stress levels, your swim session will let you switch off from the digital world for a while.

5. Potential for social contact

Two dolphins swimming together.

Swimming can be as solitary or as social as you want it to be. It’s about finding what’s right for you. Maybe you’ll discover that the solitude of a solo swim is exactly what you need to unwind.

If you do choose the social option – aqua classes, for example, or joining a swim club, or simply swimming with loved ones – you can enjoy the mental health benefits of working out with others, from improved motivation to the pure pleasure of bonding.

6. Finding calmness through breathing

Breathwork is an increasingly popular technique for promoting a sense of calm. However, some people find it uncomfortable to concentrate solely on breathing.

Because regulating the breath is such an intrinsic part of swimming – we control our breathing without thinking about it – a session in the pool can be a good way to relieve tension without overly focusing on breathing in and of itself.

7. A sense of peace

A close up of blue water.

Ever heard of Blue Mind theory? This is the idea that you enter a meditative state simply by being in or even just near water, popularised by marine biologist Dr Wallace Nichols. According to Blue Mind theory, water can create a feeling of deep peace and serenity, whether that’s an ocean, lake, swimming pool or even a fountain.

Easy ways to make your swim even more enjoyable

As a triathlete, Rachel Rutherford is no stranger to the pool! Here are her tips for getting the most out of your swim:

  • Take the pressure off yourself with regards to time and distance.
  • Choose a time when the pool is empty, I personally like to swim at 6am as this is when I find it most relaxing.
  • Don’t rush – give yourself time.
  • Swimming lessons might help you feel more comfortable in the water.
  • Go with a friend, it’s a great opportunity to keep active and also catch up with friends.
  • Treat yourself to the sauna and steam room after your swim to relax the muscles even further.
  • If you have worries around body image, choose a pool that allows you to take towels and robes poolside, which is an option to make you feel safer. You might also like to wear a T-shirt. But remember that many people have body image anxiety and you are not alone.

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