We always feel better after a swim outdoors but why? As research shows that hitting the pool just once a month eases anxiety and depression, we take a closer look at the feel-good effect of wild swimming – along with the world’s top 10 best places to take the plunge.
What is wild swimming?
Wild swimming basically means swimming in any natural body of water, from lakes to wadis or the sea. Since the world’s best beaches are a topic of their own, this article focuses on wild swimming in non-ocean spots. We’ve also included a few destinations for hot spring bathing.
Wild swimming has become hugely popular over the past few years, in part because of impact on wellbeing. In a digitally obsessed age, wild swimming offers a rare chance to down tools and reconnect with nature. Further down, we’ll dive into the world’s best places for wild swimming – but first, a look at its many health benefits:
What are the benefits of wild swimming?
- Swimming is like meditation
Stressful crawl lessons in the school swimming pool may have taught you otherwise, but swimming can be a deeply calming act. The steady, repetitive motion of cutting through the water helps you to escape the chaos in your head and focus on the moment. “Going for a swim enables me to switch off from everything,” travel journalist Anna Goldrein tells Psychologies. “I’m not being bombarded by stimulation as I am for the rest of my day. It’s just me and my mind moving through the water, which is very liberating, and because swimming is so rhythmical, it’s like doing yoga in water.” Good breathing is great for getting into the flow, too, as this guide to mindful swimming illustrates.
- Nature makes us happier
Being in nature only enhances the soothing effect of swimming. We evolved in an outdoor environment, so it makes sense that we are at our happiest there. Swimming alfresco amid a canvas of trees or mountains is an antidote to modern life. It allows our overloaded minds to wander, with the soft focus of water, leaves and morning mist drawing away from incessant head-chatter. It’s why outdoor swimmers and triathletes often describe moments of sheer euphoria after steeling themselves into a sunrise river or alpine lake.
- Cold water can help with depression
When you immerse yourself in water of 20°C or less, it sparks your body’s stress response, with flight-or-fight symptoms such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (it can be dangerous, though – always follow these tips). This response lessens with exposure, and some scientists believe it can help to blunt your reactions to other daily stresses, especially those experienced by people with depression. In one documentary, a 24-year-old woman with depression gave up medication and was symptom-free four months after being prescribed weekly cold water swimming sessions. “The transformation into someone bursting with energy and smiles was staggering,” writes Doctor Mark Harper, who was involved in the experiment, in the Spectator. “She had been taking antidepressants for eight years but within four months she was off them and managing her symptoms with swims in a local lake.”
- It may ease other conditions, too
Cold water stimulates blood flow, improving circulation and relieving inflammation. Inflammation, in turn, is a mechanism of many health conditions, from depression to bowel disease and even the common cold. One study found sea swimmers suffered significantly less frequent and severe colds during the winter, compared to those who didn’t swim outdoors. Of course, cold water swimming isn’t an instant cure. But science indicates that it can have a positive effect on the immune system, in symphony with its anti-stress benefits.
- Hot water bathing is also therapeutic
For those of you who just can’t stand the chill, hot spring bathing is also a boon for wellbeing. Right back to Roman times, physicians used “the water cure” as a means to heal the body and mind. Warm water causes blood vessels to relax: this increases blood flow to muscles, which relieves tension and mental fatigue. Multiple studies have also shown bathing to reduce anxiety and promote the release of feel-good serotonin. Being in nature again amplifies this benefit, and many of the world’s volcanic hot springs come with mineral-rich waters which are beneficial in their own right.
So, now you know the rich benefits of wild swimming and alfresco bathing, here’s where to enjoy them the most:
1 - Wild wadis in Oman
The beauty of Oman’s desert wadis is that they really are secluded, hidden away between pinkish cliffs and a maze of palm trees. The cool, green pools are balm for the soul and you’ll find yourself turning cartwheels of delight even before you’ve discovered secret caves with waterfalls to leap from.
2 - Alcantara Gorges, Italy
The Alcantara Gorges on the northern slopes of Mount Etna, Sicily, are a great place to let loose your inner mermaid. Float your way through rock pools framed by wild flowers, or paddle in the shallows of dramatic gullies in this peaceful nook, complete with beautiful ceylon waters.
3 - The Kuang Si Falls, Laos
The terrace of turquoise pools that cluster around Laos’ most famous waterfall could’ve come straight out of a tropical shampoo ad. Work up a sweat by hiking through the jungle to to the Kuang Si source, then leap gleefully in, with the sun making the colour pigments all the more vivid. It’s pinch-me stuff.
4 - The onsens of Japan
Same-sex Japanese onsens are havens of wellbeing, with warm, mineral-rich waters tucked away in the country’s mountainous regions. Those who live in Japan often come to these inns for days at a time, cooking their own food and bathing out in the wild. It’s an unbeatable way to recharge.
5 - Canada's springs and glacial lakes
Sure, the lakes of Western Canada may be a *tad* chilly, but who dares, wins. Take in the sweeping panoramas of the Rockies from your prime position on a summer-time lake. The water is so clear, it’ll take your breath away (along with the temperatures). There are hot springs in the region, too, to warm up in after.
6 - Iceland's Blue Lagoon
Set in an 800-year-old lava field in the Reykjanes Peninsula, this geothermal hot spot is filled with warm, milky-white water. Feel your entire body loosen up as you wallow in the toasty lagoons, heated to around 37-40°C, with plumes of steam casting tendrils into the vast skies above.
7 - Lake Bled, Slovenia
Nestled at the foot of the Julian Alps in northwestern Slovenia is Lake Bled, a remnant of the last ice age and the most-visited attraction in Slovenia. This picturesque lake features a 17th Century church on an island and an ancient castle on the banks. This fairytale setting is yours to paddle in come summer, with warm waters and a number of beach/bathing areas around the rim.
8 - Mexico's mysterious cenotes
Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is positively bubbling over with cenotes: pools of water tucked away beneath the ground in fascinating, age-old cave systems. While some of these caverns are massively popular (looking at you, Ik Kil), others are more secluded. Either way, they’re magical places to swim in, with hidden balconies, hanging vines and bright sunlight cutting across the surface from above.
9 - Norway's forest lakes
There are nearly half a million freshwater lakes in Norway, framed by a spectacular outdoor landscape of forest and snow-capped peaks. Thanks to the country’s free roaming laws, along with a deep love of the Great Outdoors, these are popular spots for swimming and hiking in the warmer summer months. If don’t mind the chill, you could even head north and pitch your tent for a midnight swim, to catch the eerie glow of a sun that never sets.
10 - Cave swimming in Belize
Caves Branch River in Saint Herman’s National Park, Belize, is the kind of place that makes you feel happy to be alive. Its limestone underground caves are hung with stalactites and ancient Maya paintings. Even better, it leads to a mystical cenote plunging 100-ft into the ground. This is pretty much a wonderspot for wild swimming, with sun-dappled waters, thick jungle foliage and a deep sense of history all around.
Images: Flash Pack, Unsplash, Shutterstock