Can Swimming Help Fight Depression And Anxiety? 1.4 Million People Think So

"Research shows that simply being in water can be restorative."

1.4 million adults believe that swimming has significantly reduced symptoms of their anxiety and depression, according to a 2018 YouGov poll commissioned by Swim England.

It’s something which Nathaniel Cole, 27, knows all too well. The co-founder of Swim Dem Crew, an inner-city swim club, has spoken at length about how swimming helps him feel less anxious and improves his mental health.

He previously told HuffPost UK: “A part of my purpose is swimming. I’m super anxious so if I’m having a depressive bout, it helps. It helps build my inner confidence.”

A 24-year-old woman with symptoms of major depressive disorder and anxiety previously trialled weekly open water swimming and found it led to an immediate improvement in mood, according to a BMJ case report published in 2018 .

Over time, she experienced a gradual reduction in symptoms of depression and was able to come off medication (citalopram) completely. One year after the trial, she was still medication-free.

The latest survey suggests swimming is a key activity to help mental wellbeing, with over one million people with mental health conditions benefitting from the activity.

Discussing what makes it so beneficial, Ian Cumming, Chairperson of the Swimming and Health Commission, said it is unique because the buoyancy of water means everyone is able to take part at a pace that suits them. “It is particularly good for people with restricted movement,” he said.

“Research shows that simply being in water can be restorative. People relax in many different ways – some set a target and aim to beat their time while others prefer a more leisurely swim on their own or with friends. Swimming provides that choice, and if it is regularly prescribed alongside other forms of support, swimming could have a real impact on wider society.”

Nearly half a million (497,400) British swimmers with mental health problems say they reduced the number of visits to a medical professional regarding their mental health as a result of swimming, according to the survey of more than 4,000 people.

The results, which were scaled up to represent the population of the United Kingdom, suggest around 3.3 million British adults with mental health problems swim regularly – at least once every two to three weeks.

When asked about the impact of swimming on their day-to-day life, 43 per cent of this group said it makes them feel happier, while 26 per cent are more motivated to complete daily tasks and 15 per cent believe life feels more manageable.

Elaine McNish, Head of Health and Wellbeing at Swim England, said: “The findings released today are very encouraging and support our work to create aquatic exercise classes that GPs and health professionals can recommend to people with mental health concerns.”

Mental health charity Mind estimates that approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity for the charity, said: “We all know that doing physical activities like swimming is good for our bodies. However, our physical health and mental health are closely linked and we know from our own Get Set to Go programme that being physically active can also be very beneficial for our mental health too.

“If you’re more active there’s good evidence to suggest that at most ages, there’s a trend towards lower rates of depression. In fact, one study has found that by increasing your activity levels from doing nothing, to exercising at least three times a week, you can reduce your risk of depression by up to 30 per cent.”