There’s no denying the restorative benefits of swimming in the sea with the roar of crashing waves, the fresh ocean air, and the humbling sight of an endless blue horizon.
But the benefits of swimming in the sea expand far beyond experiencing nature at its most awe-inspiring. We asked experts exactly why saltwater swimming is so good for us. And it turns out, a daily dip could be pretty life-changing in terms of our overall health.
The sea is steeped in healing history with its extensive saltwater benefits. Victorian doctors prescribed wild swimming trips to the seaside for patients, while the ancient Greeks soaked in mineral-rich water to cure all kinds of ailments. "Blue space therapy is a woefully underused method of lifestyle prescription for our physical and mental health. The research undoubtedly proves that taking a dip can boost our wellbeing ten-fold," Dr Ruth Micallef, an award-winning counselor, and mental health expert, told us. "Wild swimming has a host of research-proven benefits, including improved self-esteem, social confidence, and resilience, to name just a few." The benefits of cold-water swimming - whether that's in a lake, lido, or the sea - also include better sleep and a mood boost, with research in association with University College London claiming it can even ease symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
Benefits of swimming in the sea for your health
1. Ocean air lifts our mood
If you live in a city, you'll know the difference ocean air can make. "Sea air is charged with negative ions, which increases our happy hormone, serotonin," says consultant psychiatrist Dr Arghya Sarkhel. "Plus, the sound and vision of the ocean lift our mood. The touch of sand and the smell of a seaside breeze leads to relaxation. Biologically, these audio-visual stimuli incite our parasympathetic nervous system, which activates our 'rest and digest' function instead of 'fight or flight'," he says.
Getting into water creates this meditative state, triggered by a change in breathing patterns and a slower heart rate. “When I’m swimming, there’s no noise except for the crashing waves and my breath,” says Michelle Moroney, a certified yoga instructor, who swims daily in the Atlantic Ocean. “There is no stress, no worries, it’s a spiritual experience.”
2. Ocean views can improve focus
There is something to be said for just glimpsing the waves when it comes to the benefits of swimming in the sea too. Researchers from the University of Michigan found that places of nature captivate us due to their high “fascination value”, which powers our clarity and focus.
The study found that employees with a view of nature were happier, in better health, and enjoyed their job more. It's a concept we've seen with other natural therapies, like forest bathing as well.
3. Increased magnesium improves sleep
A study by the National Trust found that coastal walkers experienced an improved quality of sleep and slept for 47 minutes longer than inland walkers, a finding that researcher Eleanor Ratcliffe of the University of Surrey puts down to the rhythmic lull of the waves and higher intake of magnesium from droplets of seawater in the air.
"Magnesium is one of the many essential nutrients the body needs to function well," says nutritionist Kim Pearson. "The benefits of magnesium include helping to regulate muscle function, nerve function, and blood sugar levels. It also can help us sleep better as magnesium supports the restorative phase of sleep by maintaining good levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep."
Not only this, but research from Northwestern University consistently shows that swimming as regular aerobic exercise can help older adults dealing with insomnia to sleep better. Participants in the study reported both a boost in the quality of their life and in sleep quality after doing cardiovascular exercise (including swimming) regularly.
4. Sea swimming can boost the immune system
As a form of cold water swimming, taking a dip in the ocean can help your immune system to function properly. In fact, it's one of the many proven benefits researched by multiple institutions, including Charles University and the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin.
The research shows that swimming in cold water, whether that's something extreme like ice swimming or just taking a dip in the sea, increases the body's natural level of white blood cells that find and destroy harmful viruses and bacteria.
"There are so many benefits of swimming in the sea. It also makes your body more resilient to stressors which could impact your immune system and overall wellness," says Moroney, who runs the Cliffs of Moher Retreat. "As you swim in the cold water, your body learns to cope with discomfort and stress, which is applicable to every area of life both in and out of the water."
5. Saltwater may reduce hay fever symptoms
Swimming in the sea is a popular activity in the late spring and summer, given the slight increase in temperature. It's around about the same time that allergy season begins. One of the many natural remedies for hay fever is nasal irrigation with salt water, where sufferers use a flushing system to remove pollen and other irritants from the nose and sinuses.
Ocean swimming and exposure to an environment high in salt may be associated with the reduction of hay fever symptoms and sinusitis, as well as other respiratory conditions, according to the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. The research suggests this is because of the saline effect of the salt water, which goes up the nose naturally during swimming, on the sinuses. It's perhaps one of the more unknown benefits of swimming in the sea.
6. Saltwater is good for the skin
Ever heard anecdotes about people’s skin conditions improving during their holidays? It’s thought that the sea’s elixir of minerals is responsible. “Seawater is rich in minerals like magnesium, zinc, iron, and potassium, which each alone have fantastic benefits,” says Dr Karen Davis, a certified physician assistant specializing in chronic skin conditions. "These minerals are anti-inflammatory, helping to heal and protect the skin barrier, so soaking in seawater is considered nature's skin treatment. It's great for sensitive skin or eczema-prone skin."
In fact, a study by the University of Kiel found that soaking atopic dry skin in magnesium-rich saltwater reduced inflammation while improving hydration and skin barrier function. “In conditions like psoriasis, the cell turnover is high, so replenishing with minerals that the body has used up could be the reason why it helps many people,” says Dr Davis.
7. Coastal life encourages a more active lifestyle
“The coastal lifestyle encourages us to engage in regular exercise, whether it’s gently strolling along the seaside or jogging along the beach,” says Dr Sarkhel, pointing to the benefits of swimming generally. “Exercise is already proven to increase neurotransmitters like noradrenaline, which are deficient in those with depression. Therefore, it may not come as a surprise that people living closer to the sea have healthier lifestyles.”
Meg Pugh and Laura Sanderson are two wild swimmers who love sea swimming so much that they co-founded Wild Swim Snowdonia, an open-water swimming club in Wales, UK. They can personally vouch for the benefits of living by the seaside. “Sea swimming goes hand in hand with being active, as it normally involves a walk or cycle to the beach. So the fresh air, movement, and a swim are the perfect remedies,” explains Pugh. "Being able to go for a long swim or a quick dip is so energizing that it makes you want to look after yourself as well, and it kick-starts a sensible approach to health and wellbeing.”
Is swimming in the ocean every day good for you?
Yes, those who swim in cold water regularly have a reportedly lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes, according to research by the Jerzy Kukuczka Academy of Physical Education. Those looking to boost their immune system will also find resistance to colds and flu increases the more they are exposed to cold water.
Unless you're lucky enough to live by the sea though, it's unlikely that you'd be able to go swimming every day. At least where the short-term benefits are concerned, a dip on holiday is all you need, says Dr Micallef. "Swimming in the sea produces several positive effects on the body and the mind," she reminds us. "As soon as our breathing steadies after the body acclimatizes to the temperature, our mind goes into a meditative state, which can help reduce stress in the moment and in the hours following."
It's also entirely possible to reap many of the benefits that come with sea swimming at home by taking cold showers in the morning and practicing breathing, and washing your face and body with salt water.
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Lauren is the former Deputy Digital Editor at woman&home and became a journalist mainly because she enjoys being nosy. With a background in features journalism, Lauren worked on the woman&home brand for four years before going freelance. Before woman&home Lauren worked across a variety of women's lifestyle titles, including GoodTo, Woman's Own, and Woman magazine.
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