Could outdoor swimming treat depression?

Image: Sajad Fi, Unsplash

A new study will examine the impact of prescribing outdoor swimming to people suffering from mental health difficulties at three locations in England.

University of Portsmouth experts are working with the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to find out if outdoor swimming has an impact on depression.

Ecotherapy - offering therapeutic intervention in nature – is known to benefit mood. There is also emerging evidence to suggest that regular open water bathing could have a positive impact on a person’s mental health.

Immersion in cold water gradually reduces stress levels in everyday life and generates a greater sense of wellbeing.

"We hope to offer a study that analyses the impact of outdoor swimming and if it helps people to recover, whom it works for and why."

Dr Heather Massey, University of Portsmouth

Researchers are looking for people with mental health difficulties to take part in a randomised control trial (RCT). Some participants will be given a swimming course, and then be compared to a control group who are receiving their usual care.

The first aim of this project is to see if people will sign up to take part and also whether they remain engaged in the study to the end. The second is to determine if those with mild to moderate depression benefit from an outdoor swimming course and explore reasons why any changes occur.

Dr Heather Massey from the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Sport, Health & Exercise Science, said: “This is a preparatory study to see if we can encourage people to participate in a robust one focusing on an outdoor swimming intervention versus usual care for people living with symptoms of depression.

“By undertaking this trial, we hope to be able to offer a streamlined study in more locations that more closely analyses the impact of the outdoor swimming course, the cost-benefit of the activity, and importantly if it helps people to recover, whom it works for and why.”

The study, funded by the National Institute for Health & Care Research will provide preliminary support for using outdoor swimming as an alternative to antidepressants or talking therapies.

Depression and anxiety in the UK are at an all-time high, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, despite the increasing numbers of newly-trained NHS talking therapists, demand and waiting times continue to grow.

The project comes after a small-scale study during summer last year, which is due to be published in the coming months.

Dr Massey added: “In this new study we are looking at outdoor swimming as part of social prescribing, which looks to support members of the community who are self-referred or referred by a number of professional organisations to community activities that will support them. It’s a step up in terms of scientific rigour.”

Swimming lessons will take place at Parliament Hill in London, Lenches Lake in Worcestershire, and Saunton in North Devon. Anyone interested in taking part in the study can email for more information.