Take the Plunge

Kaitlin Dryburgh

Every year there’s a new fitness and health fad. To be honest, with the likes of Tik Tok it’s nearly every week. It’s been a few years since open water/cold water/ wild swimming was the go-to wonder activity, but it’s definitely hung around a lot longer than the likes of barefoot running and dog yoga. The thing with us Scots is we can moan about the cold, but we sure do know how to embrace it. We’re a hardy bunch.

Scotland is blessed with 30,000 inland waterways and a 6000-mile coastline so open water swimming was never really a trend for us. Spurred on by Covid there was an uptake in those brave enough to give it a go. Why did it take a global pandemic to show Scottish people the joys of outdoor swimming? Well once you shut down the swimming pools and isolate everyone it may just make you crave human interaction enough that you’ll brace our cold waters. Being a little mad does indeed help in this instance.

Lest we forget the rise of the staycation. International travel became riskier, so swimming in the Med was a no go. So the Fife coastline or the Isle of Skye was the next best thing. Open water swimming was once a more popular past time, some of my relatives still like to remind me that they were taught to swim in the local harbour. But the rise of cheap travel put an end to that. It wasn’t until Covid, coupled with recent rising cost of travel that we began to see that staying at home wasn’t all that bad.

Last year two avid open water swimmers Vicky Allen and Anna Deacon wrote The Ripple Effect: A Celebration of Britain’s Brilliant Wild Swimming Communities, which examines the different open water swimming communities in Britain. They launched the publication with a brisk swim at Edinburgh’s Portobello beach with groups from all around the UK.

Like many others they advocate for the heath benefits of embracing cold water swimming. It’s fairly hard to argue with them, both of them have turned to open water swimming when life became too stressful. Anna’s Pittenweem group the Menopausal Mermaids are as just about the swimming as they are the social aspect. Both authors believe that most come to open water swimming with some kind of story, be that a want to be in nature, getting over grief or a need for more social connection.

For groups like these members grew and grew through-out Covid. Edinburgh’s Wardie Bay Wild Ones had around 30 to 50 Facebook members before the pandemic, which exploded to the current 3,000 members.

Then you have the aptly named Dundee Dookers. A men’s only group set up in the aide of mental health, its core mission to support other men and have a good old blether. Nothing formal that replicates anything like a therapy session, just having fun and kidding on with your mates.

However, not to be a Debbie downer there are two aspects that look to threaten the uptake of open-water swimming. The first, dirty water. Sewage leaks and water pollution awareness is on the rise and no person is more aware than an open water swimmer. The health benefits don’t out-weight the risk of illness if the water is contaminated. It’s a real drawback to those who love a bracing dip or those who potentially would give it a go. There has unfortunately been several reports of swimmers getting sick due to contaminated water.

The second is the rising number of children leaving school unable to swim. Stirling council has just announced that they plan to cut swimming lessons for primary schools. They are following several other councils who have unfortunately done the same. Being able to swim in a pool with a lifeguard is one thing but open water swimming requires that bit more water safety, as I’m sure you could imagine. Not only do we need swimming lessons for the youngsters but a concerted effort to raise awareness of how to safely swim outdoors.

Yet in the face of these challenges there are many new community groups springing up all over the place. Open sea, lochs, or coastal tidal pools, take your pick. And with the uptake in the sport, once forgotten about tidal pools are getting resurrected. Community funds and some council backing are helping to get these seaside relics of the past back into action. Which is great as they do offer a safer open water experience. Portsoy a small fishing village in Aberdeenshire is currently raising funds to get their tidal pool back up and running, having originally been built by residents in 1934.

So the health benefits. Well the obvious one being exercise, need I say more. Then there’s the social and nature aspects, both wonderful for your mental health. But the action of swimming in cold water itself is fantastic.

Doctor Mark Harper who has conducted numerous studies of the effects of cold-water swimming gave a presentation to MSPs at Holyrood calling for outdoor swimming to be adopted as a public health measure. Not only does he point out that its promotion could improve our health and therefore reduce the burden on the NHS but provide directly benefit on-going conditions. So much so that he believes GPs should be prescribing wild swimming. For conditions such as arthritis and diabetes which are inflammatory diseases the cold water effects could help reduce inflammation.

As an anaesthetist Dr Harper became interested in the effects of cold-water immersion on the stress responses. Cold water induces the bodies natural stress-response, although this may sound unpleasant it’s a mild trigger that actually brings on endorphins and other happy side effects. Although not completely conclusive many believe that this voluntary state of mild stress actually helps our body in the long-run deal with actual stress and anxiety.

Although studies are still yet to fully conclude if that is so we know for a fact that it’s a past-time with lots of benefits.

Scotland’s bountiful natural beauty provides a remarkable setting. Iona’s white sand a crystal-clear water could even trick you into thinking you’ve washed up somewhere in the Caribbean. However, dip a toe in and that will soon become a fantasy.

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