Finally, it is safe to get back in the water

Swimming pools across the UK will open to the public again on Saturday July 25 – and not a moment too soon for the nation’s mental and physical wellbeing, according to British swimming legend Adam Peaty. 

Peaty, the world record holder for 50m and 100m breaststroke, has been imploring the government for the past couple of months to open up pools citing research last year that showed the sport saves the NHS around £357 million a year in improving the nation’s health.

The government delayed opening pools while all around golf courses and tennis courts opened for business citing a lack of control over coronavirus would be possible at pools with indoor changing rooms and a limited amount of space.

But Peaty argued forcefully that the benefits would outweigh the risk. “People will talk about how much the pubs bring in [to the economy] in terms of tax, but you also have to think about the health benefits that swimming provides,” he told the BBC.

“With mental health concerns on the increase we’re in a dangerous position and there’s a risk that if the pubs are open but they can’t exercise then people will choose the pub each day and have no balance.”

“Some venues struggle to make money and are at risk of permanent closure,” he added. “Then you have kids who haven’t swum now in 15-16 weeks who may turn to other sports.

“If we’re not careful we’ll see a downturn in participation just before the Tokyo Olympics which is extremely wrong.”

Peaty, who is expected to be a star of Team GB at the Olympics again next summer, has been back in training for several weeks, with elite swimmers being given special exemptions. He explained that with the temperature checks, mask-wearing and sticking to your own lanes, swimming is as safe as any sport right now. 

Peaty has had his own mental health issues over the years and has spoken openly about them. “I know a lot of people have struggled with mental health during lockdown, but what has helped me is making sure I talk with friends and going out in the countryside for walks,” he said.

And if people are still worried about getting back in the pool – or at least back in the changing rooms – then perhaps it is time to give open water swimming a go – in the cold seas off the British coast. And with staycations all the rage this summer, what better moment to take the opportunity.

Studies have been ongoing in the UK into the scientific benefits of cold water swimming for people who are experiencing mental health problems.

Volunteers have been used to take dips in troughs of freezing water in labs and on Brighton beach to assess if it enables people to deal better with stress.

Professor Mike Tipton, an environmental physiologist at the University of Portsmouth, told Science Focus magazine that there are two phases of benefits from cold water swimming: the initial cold shock and the longer term gains.

The cold water shock is familiar with most who have swum in the sea in this country. You gasp, you hyperventilate and then your heart speeds up and adrenaline flows through your body. Your blood pressure rockets and fats are released into your bloodstream, giving you an energy source you need.

Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released and endorphin hormones in your brain enable a sense of euphoria. It is a natural high like no other and can give immediate stress relief.

And the more you immerse yourself in cold water the more the body adapts and your heart rates and breathing rates rise half as much. This adaptation, says Professor Tipton, makes you less reactive to the shock of cold water, but it could also make you less reactive to everyday stress.

This is what researchers call ‘cross-adaptation’: adapt to one stressor, and you can partially adapt to others.  

Although physical and psychological stress can affect the body in different ways, they also share common elements.

“These stressors are always stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, as well as other systems responsible for cellular tolerance to stress,” Tipton told Science Focus. “We think that cold water habituation resets those systems to deal with stress better.”

Open water swimmers are often vocal about how their sport has helped their mental health. Spending time next to water is often linked with well-being and there is a great community spirit when a body of swimmers head out into the water together.

Dr Mark Harper, an anaesthetist at Brighton and Sussex University Hospital, told Science Focus that he is now planning a study of cold water swimming to improve the mental health of NHS workers who have battled through working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sportsiders thinking about taking up cold water swimming should always swim with others and check with your GP if you have a history of heart disease or suffer with asthma. The is a great resource to find venues and always check the site is safe before you swim.

It is best to start in shallow water where you can stand up – because it will be so hard to control your breathing when you first get in. Always make sure you get out of the water if you think you might be stiffening up and, when out, put on warm clothes and have a hot drink before getting in a car and thinking about driving home. 

It IS safe to get back in the water and it is a sport that can truly lift your spirits. 

More news