When Lisa Monger, 45, was put into a chemically-induced menopause due to life-limiting symptoms of endometriosis, she began to experience many of its common symptoms. These included hot flushes, disrupted sleep, extreme brain fog, and a low mood, all of which were drastically affecting her ability to work in her role as a health and wellbeing coach. Then Lisa discovered sea swimming and swam through the Winter for the first time in 2020 in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.
It was life changing for her. “I experienced this amazing epiphany that massively lifted my mood,” she says. “If I was stressed, open water swimming got rid of it. If I was worried or anxious, the sea reset the bubble in my inner spirit level. Now, I can go into the sea feeling completely out of kilter, and it just resets and rebalances me.”
Research has found that women are taking to open water in vastly higher percentages than men, and the benefits of open water for women going through the menopause have come into focus. So, what are the exactly are the physical and mental benefits of open water swimming for menopausal women, and what makes outdoor swimming such a profound experience for so many women in midlife?
According to the British Menopause Society, menopausal symptoms affect more than 75% of women and its symptoms have an average duration of seven years, with one in three women experiencing symptoms beyond that.
The NHS states that common symptoms of the menopause include hot flushes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping and a reduced sex drive. Women may also experience “brain fog” or problems with memory and concentration. Less well known symptoms include headaches; mood changes (including low mood and anxiety); joint stiffness, aches and pains; reduced muscle mass; and increased risk of osteoporosis.
The real benefits from swimming in menopause and post-menopause are not only to do with our muscles and joints, but all to do with our blood pressure and lymphatic system….Swimming decreases the vascular stiffness that arrives as we lose oestrogen in menopause.
So how does the open water help the menopause for many women? So far, the evidence is anecdotal, with a few studies indicating where future research may look for links. For example, major depressive disorder is one of the symptoms on the substantial list above, and in a study of one individual with MDD, cold water swimming was found to lift her mood (BMJ, August 2018. The subject was not menopausal). In addition, in 2020 a team from Cambridge University discovered that a group of frequent cold water swimmers had an elevated level of the protein RBM3, which has been found to have protective effects against brain cell deaths – a side effect often related to the loss of oestrogen during menopause.
Dr Wendy Sweet of My Menopause Transformation offers the view that, “The real benefits from swimming when we are in menopause and post-menopause are not only to do with our muscles and joints, but all to do with our blood pressure and lymphatic system….Swimming decreases the vascular stiffness that arrives as we lose oestrogen in menopause.”
Alongside the exercise itself, there is a body of evidence that spending time in green and blue spaces increases well-being exponentially. According to the Environment Agency, many people report feeling happier when they are in proximity of Blue Space.
Louisa Knights, 42, a sea swimmer from Cornwall supports this idea. Diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer at the age of 40, Louisa was put into a menopausal state as part of her treatment. She says: “I can categorically state that sea swimming massively helped me feel more connected to the marine environment which had huge mental and physical health benefits”. Anna Oldfield, 48 from Eastbourne, agrees. She says: “Sea dipping is definitely helping me with my internal thermostat, I would definitely recommend it!”
At the age of 45 and as a peri-menopausal woman myself, open water swimming in my local rivers and lakes have provided me with the most incredible relief for bone aches, brain fog and mood swings. In the myriad open water communities online (and off), open water and it’s benefits for the menopause are widely shared in conversation. The next step is developing this anecdotal evidence and experience into research.
Joyce Harper is Professor of Reproductive Science at the Institute for Women’s Health, University College London. Her current area of research is the effect of open water and cold water swimming on the menopause. She says: “Many women have told me that they feel cold water swimming improves some of their menstrual and menopause symptoms. This includes migraines, anxiety, depression and joint issues. We will be running a survey to ask more about this. I feel part of it is the cold water swimming but it may also be helped by the friendship of swimming and being in nature. I think they all contribute.”
Open water offers a chance to enjoy physical activity, to be part of a community, and to embrace the immersion in nature that open water offers – all of which are crucial to wellbeing during the menopause.
Calling all women who cold-water swim – whether in an unheated outdoor lido, river, sea, lake etc. Can you spare 15 mins to complete an anonymous, online survey? We want to know if you feel that cold-water swimming has an effect on your menstrual and menopause symptoms. The project has the approval of University College London ethics committee (reference: 9831/007). The title of the study is: An Investigation of Impacts of Cold Water Swimming on Menstrual and Menopausal Symptoms This project is being conducted in collaboration with Professor Joyce Harper, University College London, Professor Sasha Roseneil, University of Sussex, Dr Ruth Williamson, University Hospitals Dorset, and Dr Heather Massey, University of Portsmouth.
As is routine when doing surveys, we will ask you some questions about your demographics, such as your religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age so we can determine the type of women who have completed the survey. We will ask you some questions about your cold water swimming activities, and about your possible menstrual and menopause symptoms and if cold water swimming changes these symptoms. Please click on the link below to begin the survey: