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How swimming improves mental health

Keeping active is important for your health, but being mentally fit is also important. Swimming can help with this.

Your mental health is ever changing. Many different factors and life events affect it in positive and negative ways.

Stress caused by work, education, money problems, bereavement or relationship breakdowns can all cause mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Getting older can also have an effect on mental health.

What is mental health?

Just as we have physical health, we all have mental health too. Mind defines good mental health as being generally able to think, feel and react in the ways that you need and want to live your life. But if you go through a period of poor mental health you might find the ways you’re frequently thinking, feeling or reacting become difficult, or even impossible to cope with. This can feel just as bad as a physical illness, or even worse.

Approximately one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. Common mental health problems include depression and anxiety, while less common problems include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Mental health problems can affect anyone and can have a wide range of causes that can be complex and interrelated. In most cases, no one is precisely sure what the cause of a particular problem is, it’s likely to have been a combination of factors.

How swimming can improve mental health

  • Being active has a positive impact on mental health including: improving mood, increasing self-esteem, lowers the risk of depression, slows dementia and cognitive decline, improves sleep and reduces stress.
  • Swimming has significantly reduced the symptoms of anxiety or depression for 1.4 million adults in Britain. Almost half a million British adults with mental health problems have stated that the number of visits to a medical professional regarding their mental health has reduced as a result of swimming.
  • Swimming and being in water can help with relaxation.

Tips for swimmers with mental health problems

Take note of the following tips for swimming with mental health problems.

Do:

  1. Start off small and build up your swimming levels at a pace that works for you. Even small amounts of swimming can give you a natural energy boost.
  2. Ask someone you trust to help you get started. Swimming pools should allow you to attend with a friend or support worker for the first few sessions while you get used to the new surroundings.
  3. Look for groups of like-minded people. Some swimming pools will have sessions aimed at improving wellbeing and for people with mental health problems.
Three women smiling in the pool. Used for page about the mental health benefits of swimming

“I’m embarrassed about my body and don’t feel comfortable wearing swimwear”

  1. Reassure yourself that you’re not alone! Many people share similar anxieties about their bodies and everybody has to start somewhere.
  2. You could look for women or men-only sessions. These help to support people who feel uncomfortable about attending mixed-gender sessions.
  3. There are a wide range of swimming t-shirts, wetsuits and cover-ups now available to help people to access swimming comfortably.
  4. Some pools will allow you to take your towels or bathrobes poolside. Check with reception before you do.

Things to remember

  1. If you experience anxiety or panic attacks you might find swimming can cause some sensations which may feel like you’re having a panic attack. These include being unable to catch your breath or breathlessness, raised heart rate, feeling shaky or dizzy.
  2. When swimming, it’s also easy to hyperventilate as water may be colder than you expect. It’s best to test it out first by dipping a toe in and climbing into the pool gradually.
  3. Start off slowly as this may help you spot the difference between physical effects of swimming and those of a panic attack. If you do experience a panic attack, try to exit the pool and find a quiet space to recover or remain in the shallow end of the pool.
  4. Take deep, slow breaths when you take a break or after a set number of laps/lengths to help reduce the likelihood of you starting to hyperventilate.

What to avoid when swimming with mental health problems

  • Try to avoid triggering situations. For example, if you want to avoid crowds you may want to go swimming at a quiet time (e.g. early morning, during the day, or late evening).
  • Excessive swimming can be a form of self-harm. If your exercising is starting to take over your life, if you feel anxious if you miss a session, or if it’s becoming more important than work, family or friends, you could be developing an exercise or training compulsion (sometimes called an exercise addiction) and you should speak to a GP or Healthcare professional for advice
  • Medication can have implications for the type and level of swimming it may be safe for you to do. Check with your GP or psychiatrist what level of swimming is safe for you, especially if you experience any side effects.
  • Medication can also cause dehydration and this can be exacerbated when swimming, remember that you continue to sweat and lose fluids when you are in water.

Additional advice on mental health

For more information about mental health, please visit the following links from Mind.

Health Fact Sheets

Swim England’s Health Commission group have developed a range of fact sheets on swimming with particular health conditions, written for competitive swimmers, the general public and to also assist those who support or advise swimmers.

Listed below is the current fact sheet library for people with health conditions.

To view and download fact sheets written specifically for people who support or advise swimmers, head to our Health and Wellbeing pages.

Health Fact Sheets

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