In her latest blog, Swim Wales President and Public Health Wales All Wales Diabetes Prevention Programme Manager Keri Hutchinson delves into the role aquatics can play in a person’s mental and physical health.

As a health professional, I have extolled the virtues of swimming and aquatic activity to improve health and wellbeing to many who are seeking an exercise that can be enjoyed by all ages.

“Swimming is good for you!” I say to those who will listen. You do not have to take my word for it. There is now a plethora of data to support this. Whether you prefer a heated pool or an outdoor, wild swim venue, the benefits are well documented.

Swimming is a great choice for many because of the opportunities for participation across the life-course and the therapeutic benefits of water-based activity. Tang et al (2022) stated that aquatic exercise could statistically significantly improve mental health and that light aquatic aerobics probably has a better effect on mood and anxiety symptoms. There are also many other studies that support the benefit of swimming as an ideal exercise for people suffering from a range of conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and arthritis.

Recently, Public Health Wales highlighted the story of a person who had been told they were at risk of developing diabetes and had received advice around diet and exercise. For the exercise element, the service user chose swimming and there is a really welcome ‘good news’ story about how sticking to swimming regularly had had a positive impact on their health and therefore dramatically reduced the risk of ongoing future health problems.

Personally, I now prefer swimming outside, swayed, perhaps by living in Wales, which is blessed by a plethora of beautiful beaches, many of which have been recognised as a designated bathing water area. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) stated in 2012 that the coastal and marine environment of Wales is an incredible natural asset, contributing £6.8 billion to the economy of Wales and supporting 92,000 jobs and also, at the time of writing. Approximately 107 coastal areas have been recognised as designated bathing areas so swimming outside should be a doddle to the average person with outdoor swimming aspirations.

Except it is not this way for all. The designated bathing water list does not include inland waterways and for many, this is their nearest body of water and potentially their only option to swim outdoors.

The pandemic sparked a boom in the popularity of swimming outdoors after pools were shut and people, for whom swimming is their chosen health and well-being activity, sought alternative (outdoor) swimming venues.

Popular beauty spots were very quickly at capacity and soon, the anti-social element of behaviour crept into the narrative. Littering, problem parking, disturbing wildlife, overcrowding, noise pollution and more, were soon, the very big blot on the landscape of swimming outdoors and councils and landowners began to restrict access.

Outdoor swimming, for those that were not already in the loop, also began to be touted as hugely beneficial for mental health well-being and this further increased the surge of interest. Outdoor swimming groups began to see a huge boom in membership and indeed, the small one that I was running at the time, jumped from around 200 members (on the social media page) to well over a 1000 in a matter of weeks.

The boom in popularity has essentially continued to build. Many years ago, when I gravitated to swimming outdoors after trying triathlon and getting the mid-life crisis ironman triathlon out of the way, I realised that the only bit of triathlon I really enjoyed was the swimming bit and the outdoor swimming bit (no disrespect intended to the triathlon community). I soon began to shimmy my wetsuit clad self to lakes, rivers, lochs and as many beaches as I could find. Usually with friends but occasionally alone.

Why the attraction? Why that transition from pool to pond? The pool still featured, but as a training aid to the events, we entered. We swam around islands, swooshed down rivers, traversed gnarly coves (the event teams providing the expertise and the safety cover), and for a dramatic flourish, proved it was possible to escape from Alcatraz. That experience being imprinted on the ‘never forget this moment’ memory bank by being able to view the San Francisco skyline at literally sea level whilst secretly hoping that the talk of San Francisco Bay being (great white) shark infested was indeed only talk.

Whether you prefer indoor or outdoor swimming, access and equity of access are the hot topics these days. Local authority leisure providers are under significant pressure to continue to maintain facilities. The cost-of-living crisis and spiralling energy bills are impacting on the offer of services available, and the rising costs have to be passed on to the consumer, either by way of an increase in entry fees or a reduction of availability of facilities that are associated with a high cost (heated pools). Equity of access is in danger of being threatened by these factors as often, participation in leisure activities that incur a cost, are the first to be sacrificed when times are hard.

Whether it is indoors or outdoors, the evidence speaks for itself, aquatic activity is good for you, so why not dive in in 2024!