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Oh I do like to be beside the seaside... Reap the health benefits of sea swimming

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside... Reap the health benefits of sea swimming

Whether you're staying in the UK or going abroad, it's a great time of year to take the plunge and enjoy a dip in the sea. Your body will thank you for it!

The fact that swimming is a fantastic form of exercise isn't news (see here for more information).

The resistance of the water means that your body has to work harder than on land, providing a whole-body workout. It's great for improving stamina and lung capacity. You burn more calories because of the combination of the resistance of the water and the energy you need to keep up your body temperature. The water supports your body, making swimming a low impact exercise that's ideal for anyone who wants to protect muscles and joints from injury. And then there's the fact that it's fun and sociable, and might make a nice change from your usual gym routine.

So why aren't more of us taking up this fantastic form of exercise? There are a number of excuses that get wheeled out by the pool-shy:

  • Expense: Although many pools offer free swimming sessions, these can be restricted.
  • The swimming pool environment: Damp changing rooms, the warm chlorinated fug that envelops you the moment you come in, slightly suspect can make for an unappealing combination.
  • Self-consciousness: The idea of being out in public in a swimming costume is unappealing enough for many of us to put us off the whole notion of swimming altogether.
  • Hassle: You need to get yourself to a swimming pool, get changed, swim then showered and changed's tedious and time-consuming.

Fortunately these are all perfectly surmountable obstacles. And one rather fun way of addressing them is to go swimming in the sea instead of at your local pool.

The joys of swimming in the sea

Choose the sea instead of a swimming pool and chances are you can get around a lot of the less pleasant aspects of swimming – no chlorine, less crowded conditions so you don't need to feel so self-conscious, and it's free! Ok, for those of us who don't live by a beach none of this might offer a practical solution. But it's the summer. Chances are you might well be near a beach somewhere at some point in the next few weeks. And if you are, why not take advantage of the amazing health benefits of swimming in the sea?

Sea swimming has specific positive effects on our health over and above the benefits of swimming per se. Studies have suggested that it can ease pain, help with skin complaints and allergies, boost our immune system, and even improve our sex lives. And anyone who enjoys the occasional dip in the sea can attest to that post-swim feeling of euphoria.

How do these amazing benefits come about? Sea water is a natural cleanser with a mildly antiseptic effect that mimics the composition of the body's own fluids, so it's gentle on your skin and on your airways. This explains the finding that sea water baths can alleviate symptoms in people suffering from eczema and psoriasis, and that swimming in the sea can reduce allergic conditions such as hay fever and nasal itchiness. It also explains why people who live near the sea generally have healthier respiratory systems.

Then there's the health benefit of swimming in cold water. It activates cold sensors all over the body, which in turn increases our heart rate, causes a burst of adrenaline and increases our circulation. The overall effect is that we feel tingly and alive, and that we forget about any aches and pains we might be suffering from. It's a natural high. And over time, repeated exposure to cold water appears to improve our ability to cope with a range of physiological stressors – it's like a mild workout for our immune system that builds up its reserves for coping with injury or illness.

All of this means that our good old UK seaside resorts may have the upper hand on the balmy Med when it comes to health benefits. Of course you need to be just a little bit hardy to benefit...

Sea swimming safety

Feeling inspired to try out the benefits of sea swimming for yourself? Before you leap in, keep in mind these safety guidelines put forward by the Outdoor Swimming Society:

  • Don't swim when drunk.
  • Don't jump in without knowing the depth of the water.
  • Make sure you know about any currents.
  • Inform yourself about the water you're swimming in: Talk to locals or check the Outdoor Swimming Society's maps.
  • Have a plan: Before you get in, make sure you know where you're going to get out.
  • Swim close to the shore.
  • Swim with someone else.
  • Build up gently: Start with short swims and increase your time/distance slowly.