Two people walking into the sea. Life Solved logo and title overlaid

23 min listen

In recent years, new outdoor swimming enthusiasts have flocked to lidos, lakes and the sea to enjoy health and wellbeing benefits. But there are plenty of us who might still be wary of our icy British waters.

So how safe is cold water swimming? How might it improve your mental health? And is it really as good for your body as the anecdotes suggest?

In the latest episode of the Life Solved podcast, Dr Heather Massey takes us through her research into physiology under extreme conditions. An outdoor swimming enthusiast herself, Heather has spent years exploring the processes and behaviour of our bodies in hot or cold environments or at altitudes.

She says that a deeper public understanding of our physiology can help keep us safer and help us enjoy outdoor swimming even more.

What are the benefits people are reporting?

In response to the recent spike in outdoors swimmers since the pandemic, Heather and her team are now turning their research towards understanding some of the other benefits reported by swimmers.

But it’s not just the reported physiological perks that have caught her attention. Heather’s also looking at reports that anxiety, depression and mental health have all improved for people taking the dive. She’s hoping to study this in a clinical trial with outdoor swimming groups.

Top tips before taking a dip

Heather advised that anyone thinking of trying out cold water swimming should first consult with their GP to make sure no underlying conditions might be triggered by the extreme cold. After that, her safety tips are to swim with a group to familiarise yourself with common hazards, plan your exit from the water before you get in and swim for less time than you think you can handle.

In the podcast, Heather takes you through the four stages of cold response to look out for in your swimming pals.

Helping people regulate their physiology

She’s also been turning her experience in extreme temperature body physiology to helping sufferers of Ectodermal dysplasias – a group of disorders that can impact sweat gland function. For people unable to sweat normally, research can help them find ways of staying comfortable and safe in changeable conditions:

 

To listen to the full podcast and hear more about Heather’s research, search for “Life Solved” from on your podcast app of choice, and why not share this story with a friend who might be interested.

We hope that hearing experienced swimmers, runners and paddleboarders talk about their experiences will be inspirational and informative, and will give people the confidence to try something new.

Dr Heather Massey, Senior Lecturer, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science

We hope that hearing experienced swimmers, runners and paddleboarders talk about their experiences will be inspirational and informative, and will give people the confidence to try something new.

Dr Heather Massey, Senior Lecturer, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science

We hope that hearing experienced swimmers, runners and paddleboarders talk about their experiences will be inspirational and informative, and will give people the confidence to try something new.

Dr Heather Massey, Senior Lecturer, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science

Episode transcript:

John Worsey: Thanks for downloading this episode of Life Solved. In this podcast we find out how researchers across the University of Portsmouth are combining their skills and insights to change our world for the better. This time…. can cold water swimming really improve your mental health? How can you try it out safely? And how could the study of physiology help change lives for people with a genetic skin disorder?

Heather Massey: There's a range of different potential mechanisms some physiological, some psychological and some social as well and really trying to tease those out, which is going to be the challenge.

John Worsey: Let’s dive in. Dr Heather Massey’s work and her passion go hand in hand.

Heather Massey: I'm a cold water swimmer, so I'm one of these crazy people that go swimming in the sea all year round. I just thoroughly enjoy it. One of my university tutors got me into a study group looking at extreme environments and what happens to the body. So right from an undergraduate degree sort of pathway, I was really interested in what happened to the body when you got hot or cold.

John Worsey: Today, she’s a researcher in the Extreme Environments Laboratory in the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Medicine here at the University of Portsmouth.

Heather Massey: My research background is looking at what happens to the body when we are in hot environments or cold environments or at altitude.

John Worsey: In cold water studies, much of her work has focussed on how to keep the body safe in such environments and manage physiological changes. Now, as more and more people embrace the great outdoors (and our chilly British waters) she’s also looking at another side to this past time.

Heather Massey: We're moving more into looking at the potential for benefits from being in cold water. There's quite a large amount of qualitative research and quantitative evidence to indicate that people are finding there may be benefit from being in cold water. Over the last 15 ye