Outdoor swimming and the menopause
Menopause Specialist Dr Tania Longman on why a daily dip helps her manage her menopause
I’d see them while out on one of my regular walks near my South Devon home.
Actually, I’d hear them before I would see them: a group of women shrieking with laughter and swimming in the river in the dead of winter. Their smiles were huge, and they had a glow about them.
I began to look with a newfound curiosity at the river and the sea. I found myself drawn to social media posts of joyful and radiant groups of swimmers; people (mostly women) of all shapes and sizes posting wonderful images of body positivity.
In the winter of 2018, I was preparing for my GP membership exams, juggling study, work and single parenthood. Spending long periods of time behind my desk was getting me down; I felt lonely and craved connection with others.
Taking the plunge
Struggling to muster energy and motivation (in hindsight much of this was the beginning of my perimenopausal symptoms) I knew something had to change. So, after months of living vicariously through these swimmers, I finally plucked up the courage to join them. I took my first dip.
Also known as open water swimming, wild swimming and cold-water swimming, there has been a huge surge in the popularity of year-round swimming in rivers, lakes, outdoor pools and the sea.
An estimated one million people were regular outdoor swimmers in the UK in 2022. And it’s a pastime popular with perimenopausal and menopausal women – a 2020 survey in Outdoor Swimmer magazine revealed 87% swimmers are aged over 40 and 65% of swimmers are women .
Although it was gradually gaining popularity in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, it took the unprecedented restrictions on our freedoms and closure of public swimming pools to push this previously niche hobby into the mainstream.
People started sharing their experiences on social media. The media took an interest, and outdoor swimming became the subject of news articles, books and TV programmes.
So back to that first dip: was it all I had hoped? The shift in me was almost immediate upon entering the water. The incessant whirring of my overactive mind was quietened. Practicing mindfulness has never been something that’s come easily to me but in the water my mind could be nowhere else other than the embodied experience of the present – the intense cold on my skin, my breathing, my body, the river, that moment in time.
Once out of the water, and dry, I experienced the post swim ‘high’, the smile, the glow. I felt more alive than I can ever remember, more in tune with my body, and with nature. I had done it and I was forever changed. The sense of achievement was enormous. The connection with the fellow swimmers with whom I’d shared this profound experience felt so authentic.
Now for the science bit: what happens to your body and mind when you enter the cold water?
When you enter the water your body cools from the outside in – your skin, then your fat, muscles, and nerves and then your deep tissues and core, provoking a cold shock response mainly felt during the first few minutes.
The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released quickly in response, putting you in a ‘fight or flight’ mode. You gasp, your breathing becomes more rapid and your blood pressure and heart rate increase.
As the cold shock subsides endorphins and serotonin are released, lifting your mood and provoking feelings of happiness and the post swim ‘high’.
After getting out of the water your core continues to cool as the muscle layer is colder. You may start to shiver – this is your body’s way of rewarming the body from the inside out. Shivering increases oxygen consumption and metabolic rate so is a very effective way to burn energy.
Outdoor swimming and the menopause
There is growing research around the benefits of outdoor swimming, including those which are particularly beneficial to menopausal changes.
Anecdotal and emerging evidence [2-4] around the benefits of regular cold-water swimming include:
- Benefits to your blood pressure and lymphatics, with improved elasticity and responsiveness of vessels counteracting the vascular stiffness that you experience in the perimenopause and menopause through lack of estrogen
- Improved ability to adapt to other stressful situations
- Improved immune function and reduced inflammation
- Possible protection against dementia: one study showed that cold water swimming increased a protein called RBM3, which protects against brain cell death [5, 6]
- Improved mental health and mindfulness [7, 8]
There are also the social benefits – outdoor swimming communities are thriving and inclusive – in the water everybody is equal, and swimming can be adapted for all fitness levels.
The camaraderie of outdoor swimming
Outdoor swimming with a group isn’t just about the swim – it also involves discussion and camaraderie before and after a swim, checking in with each other and assessing the risks on that day and often doing breathing exercises together before entering the water, to help reduce the risks associated with cold water shock. It’s about sharing tea and cake.
Many women, particularly perimenopausal or menopausal women, experience body shame and find gyms and swimming pools intimidating places.
Why outdoor swimming is part of my menopause management
Living by the coast, I was fortunate to find several swim groups and have been into the river or sea almost daily since.
Outdoor swimming is my morning wake up, or way of recalibrating after a difficult day. It’s helped my self-esteem and I feel more connected to nature and my surroundings.
I am part of a wonderful and supportive local swimming community and I’m also involved with an organization called Chill UK who run free courses with a coach and lifeguard for people with depression or anxiety.
My immune system feels stronger. Now I manage my menopausal symptoms with HRT and outdoor swimming, as well as good nutrition and regular yoga. I feel better than I did 10 years ago.
If you’re intrigued, there’s lots of advice out there. Have a look on social media or the Outdoor Swimming Society for local groups and how to get in touch.
Outdoor swimming: my top tips on staying safe and having fun
You can learn so much from groups but it’s important to only ever ‘swim your own swim’ and listen to your own body.
- Enter the water slowly: your head needs to be out of the water and your feet on solid ground when you experience the ‘gasp’ reflex.
- Start off with a quick dip for one or two minutes – you’ll still get the benefits. The cold water is no place for ego. Get out while you are still feeling good and have full movement of your hands and fingers.
- Get warm and dry as quickly as possible with plenty of layers to trap air, then re-warm from the inside first with a warm drink, rather than a hot shower which warms the skin.
Most importantly, be safe, and enjoy it.
- Outdoor Swimmer magazine (2021) ‘Trends in outdoor swimming report’
- Massey, H. (2022), ‘Cold-water swimming and why is it good for us to challenge our bodies’, www.physoc.org/blog/cold-water-swimming-and-why-is-it-good-for-us-to-challenge-our-bodies/
- Massey, H. et al. (2022), ‘Perceived impact of outdoor swimming on health: web-based survey’, Interactive Journal of Medical Research, doi.org/10.2196/25589
- Knechtle, B. et al. (2020), ‘Cold water swimming – benefits and risks: a narrative review, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(23), 8984. doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17238984
- NHS Health Research Authority (2015), ‘The cold-shock response induced by cold water swimming’, www.hra.nhs.uk/planning-and-improving-research/application-summaries/research-summaries/the-cold-shock-response-induced-by-cold-water-swimming/
- Bastide A., Peretti D., Knight J.R., et al. (2017), ‘RTN3 is a novel cold-induced protein and mediates neuroprotective effects of RBM3’, Current Biology, 27(5):638-50. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2017.01.047
- Massey, H. et al. (2020), ‘Mood and wellbeing of novice open water swimmers and controls’, Lifestyle Medicine, 1 (2) e12, doi.org/10.1002/lim2.12
- van Tulleken C., Tipton M., Massey H., Harper C.M., (2018), ‘Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder’, BMJ Case Reports, doi:10.1136/bcr-2018-225007