In a study well timed for the northern summer, researchers Overbury, Conroy and Marks from the University of Bath reviewed the research on open water swimming. The short version: it can be as good for our brains as it is for our bodies.
The research team identified 14 published studies on open water swimming that met the inclusion criteria for their review. They searched the databases PubMed, PsychNet, Web of Science Core Collection, and Embase, as well as references from the articles they found.
Studies of interest looked at associations between open water swimming and mental health or well-being and focused on swimming in any natural environment. Therefore, articles reporting data only from indoor pools were not included.
What did they find?
The review, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, called Swimming in Nature: A Scoping Review of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Open Water Swimming, suggests that open water swimming can lead to improved mood and well-being and a reduction in symptoms of mental distress. It’s also fun, and participants found swimming to be a positive, enriching process.
Why this effect? Researchers say that open water swimming allows you to better connect with yourself, the water and others – helping to create a community of swimmers in the same place.
In addition, according to research on biophilia, the presence of and contact with water can have its own beneficial effects, adding to the mechanisms mentioned in the research paper.
What does it mean for architecture and urban development?
The range of benefits that contact with water and open water swimming can bring should motivate us to create opportunities for urban dwellers to experience it more often.
And there are already places that exemplify this approach, with urban swimming having a resurgence in some cities. This trend is also linked to municipal efforts to clean up rivers.
For example, several cities in Switzerland are known for their urban swimming opportunities. There’s the Aare river in Bern, the Rhine in Basel, and Zurich’s many river and lake pools, such as Flussbad Oberer Letten and Frauenbad on Stadthausquai.
Denmark’s Copenhagen’s pools and beaches make use of the local harbor, while Salford Quays on the River Irwell in Manchester in the UK hosts swimming events and guided swims.
In preparation for the 2024 Olympics, Paris, France, has set out to clean up the Seine and allow swimming for the first time since 1923. Similarly, Berlin’s Spree River in Germany, was closed to swimming in 1925, but now a “Flussbad”(literally, a river bath) project is transforming more than seven hundred meters of canal into an urban swimming area.
Allowing people to experience water through multiple senses, and even better, actively engaging with it by bathing and swimming, will help us fulfill its potential for increasing their wellbeing and enjoyment. It’s important, then, to identify the opportunities already present in our cities, such as existing lakes, ponds, or rivers, and make them open to public use.
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Sally Augustin, PhD, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the editor of Research Design Connections, which reports and synthesizes (in everyday language) the findings of recent and classic research in neuroscience, cognitive science, and the social sciences that are useful to designers.
Dr. Augustin is also a practicing environmental psychologist, a principal at a consultancy Design With Science, and a founder of The Space Doctors. Her work has been discussed in publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and she holds leadership positions in professional organizations such as the Transdisciplinary Workplace Research Network and the Environmental Design Research Association.
K. Overbury, B. Conroy, and E. Marks. “Swimming in Nature: A Scoping Review of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Open Water Swimming.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, in press, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2023.102073.