The life aquatic: why swimming rules

Cooling, energising, revitalising… Whether it’s in the turquoise Mediterranean sea, or a crisp infinity pool, swimming is one of few activities that looks tempting and inviting before you even start.

Its benefits are also far reaching. Water has long been cemented in the principles of health and well-being; indeed American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson implied it was key to a long, healthy life when he said, “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air”. Be it the iconic images of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr frolicking in the surf in From Here To Eternity or the more recent life-sustaining flotation tanks in James Cameron’s Avatar, the message is clear: water is good for you – for your lungs, your muscles and even your soul.

More recently outdoor swimming – think of the abundance of so-cool lidos or outdoor spas – has had a resurgence, taking us back to basics and embracing the health regimes famous in the Twenties. Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale were avid cold bathers, believing it strengthened their constitution and kept their minds clear. Regular cold-swimming in natural waters, according to Wild Swimming author, Daniel Start, also leads to bodily changes known as “cold adaptation”, where blood pressure and cholesterol is lowered, fatty deposits under the skin’s layers are reduced, lungs are strengthened and the libido is increased.

Swimming has psychological benefits too; almost meditative as it can relieve stress and tension. Contrary to popular belief, swimming doesn’t necessarily strip your skin, mess up your hair and ruin your complexion either. Noella Gabrie, founder of British skincare brand Elemis, firmly believes that water is in fact – from a simple bath to thalassotherapy [salt water therapies] – a great tool for the skin. “Water also has its own energy,” she says. “The simple touching of water on the skin has a vibrational effect and if you introduce hot and cold temperatures, there is an instant stimulation on the cells. The vibration of water on the body softens skin, making it more receptive to therapeutic effects even before adding bathing products. Then you have sea water which has a natural movement and is also hugely effective in its detoxifying properties.” This is due to the high salt and mineral content in sea water opening up the skin’s pores, allowing toxins to be drawn out more efficiently.

Swimming, when done correctly, is one of the most effective forms of exercise you can do – giving you a whole-body workout that not only tones muscles and improves flexibility but also strengthens your lungs and cardiovascular system and improves your posture.

Water is 1,000 times denser than air and can be 12 times more effective in resistance training than doing so on land. This means that in just 30 minutes of steady paced swimming you can burn almost 200 calories. And because it’s low impact, swimming is the perfect exercise for pregnant women and people recovering from injury.

Physical benefits aside, swimming is deeply liberating. Kate Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society says, “What could be more democratic than swimming? What’s more equalising than near nakedness?” After all, swimming, whether in an ocean, a sea or an outdoor lido, means you’re plunged into one of the earth’s most basic elements: water. One that you were familiar with even in the womb and all you have to do is… swim.