- Swimming in natural waters can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, a new review finds.
- Swimmers often form close bonds with each other, which can provide social support and a sense of belonging.
- Open-water swimming can help people connect with nature, which can improve mood and boost self-esteem.
In a study well timed for its summer publication (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), scientists reviewed research related to open-water swimming (Overbury et al. 2023). It will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the body of research related to humans’ experiences in natural environments and with natural things that open-water swimming can be as good for our brains as it is for our bodies.
Previous, land experience-focused studies have shown, for example, how mentally refreshing it can be for humans to see hospitable/welcoming nature in art indoors or, via window views, outdoors. Being mentally refreshed keeps our stress levels low and that is as good for our physical health (think: blood pressure levels) as it is for our mental health; all of this natural contact boosts our cognitive performance and creativity. Seeing natural materials (such as wood with visible grain and slate) and viewing green leafy indoor plants, for instance, can boost our life experiences in the same ways.
The Overbury-led team was able to identify 14 published studies related to open-water swimming that met their review inclusion criteria. Materials in the PubMed, PsychNet, Web of Science Core Collection, and Embase databases were evaluated.
Relevant findings were also sought via the reference sections of journal articles identified directly through the database searches. Only studies with empirical data that were published in English were included. Projects of interest assessed links between open-water swimming and mental health or well-being, and focused on swimming in any natural environment (so, therefore, articles reporting data only from research done in indoor swimming pools were not included).
When data were synthesized the findings were clear: Open-water swimming can improve both swimmers’ moods and their well-being/mental health; these benefits explain why, for many, open-water swimming becomes a lifelong pursuit.
Swimming outdoors is a positive experience for lots of people who get a chance to do it. Open-water swimmers often develop a community, which is likely not only good mentally but also safer physically. It means that people swimming aren’t alone but in the company of others who could get or provide help if required. Swimmers are likely to connect not only with others but also with their inner selves.
Overbury and colleagues share that: "It is interesting to note how a single experience—OWS [open-water swimming]—could incorporate so many factors known to support MH [mental health]. . . . Everyday momentary experiences in blue spaces offer a refuge from daily life."
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K. Overbury, B. Conroy, and E. Marks. 2023. “Swimming in Nature: A Scoping Review of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Open Water Swimming.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 90, 102073, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2023.102073.