Outdoor swimming as a public health measure

25th September, 2022

On 25th October 2022 Dr Mark Harper and Scottish MP Fulton MacGregor are pushing to have the health benefits of outdoor swimming recognised and supported at a national level. Dr Mark Harper explains what the event hopes to achieve – and invites you to join him and an experienced and insightful panel in a virtual event 

A few months ago I was contacted by the member of the Scottish Parliament, Fulton MacGregor.  Although (at the time) he wasn’t a cold-water enthusiast himself, in his email he said: “Very recently I came across the potential health benefits of cold water swimming and have noticed you are very involved in this area…The possible benefits of wild swimming appear great (and are free to access) and I do not think these are widely recognised. There could be huge public health benefits as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Of course, that’s what I’ve been evangelising about for years, so it was extremely gratifying to find the message getting beyond even the ever-growing band of enthusiasts and into the wider, public sphere. Since then Fulton has worked hard to get this onto the political agenda, which is really exciting.  As a result, on the 25th October, 6-7 pm, he will be hosting a virtual event at the Scottish Parliament which will give us (Fulton and I) an opportunity to promote the case for investment in outdoor swimming. There will be contributions from Chill UK, Mental Health Swims and the OSS’s ‘Scottish ambassador’, Calum Maclean.

Anyone is welcome to ‘come along’ and can do so by emailing OpenWaterPublicHealth@gmail.com for the meeting link.

(Update: You can watch a video of the discussion on YouTube)

At the meeting we will be putting the case that the great thing about cold water swimming it’s accessible in some form for most people, it’s simple and it’s cheap.  Furthermore, not only does it give participants the wonderful benefits of the cold, but also brings a whole package of positive health ‘interventions’: exercise, blue therapy, green therapy and a sense of belonging.  Not to mention the fact that it is so much fun.

However, despite the massive increase in participation (especially during the pandemic), I think it still hasn’t reached its full potential.

While outdoor swimming isn’t for everyone, there remain many people out there who might like to try it but are held back by a number of factors.

First, is the belief that you have to be a good swimmer.  However, as many people have discovered, you feel great just by getting into the water.  More exercise is, of course, a good thing; but a brief dip of a few minutes (less in the depths of winter) is all that is necessary to give a sense elation and achievement that lasts the whole day.

Second, is a lack of confidence.  This can be addressed by formal courses in water-safety and exposure such as those run by Chill UK or joining a more informal group such as Mental Health Swims.

Third, is the issue of access.  My first rule of outdoor swimming is “know how you are going to get out before you get in”.  In many potentially great spots – particularly inland – how to get out is not obvious.  Furthermore, the attitude of land-(or water-)owners is shaped by their fear of liability and prosecution should someone swimming on their property get into trouble.

Recognising the potential of outdoor swimming as a public health measure could address these barriers through the provision of infrastructure in terms of changing facilities and safe access, support for those groups that are already helping people enjoy the benefits of the cold and legislation to remove liability for landowners.  This is best addressed at a governmental and national level.

If you would like to see cold water swimming as a health prescription, I invite you to join us.