Why open water swimming is so popular with women

Open water swimming. (Getty Images)
Is open water swimming part of your life or keen to take it up? (Getty Images)

Gone are the days when your local pool was the only place your friends and family were likely to go for their swimming fix. Now, more and more people are taking to the open water (though not an entirely new concept, with it first recognised in the modern age in the 19th century), whether that's at lakes, ponds, rivers or beaches.

But why has open water swimming grown in popularity in recent years, why are more women taking it up than men, and how can we engage in it safely?

Here, Mel Berry, co-founder of Her Spirit, a leading women’s health and fitness community, and Eloise Skinner, fitness instructor and psychotherapist, share their thoughts.

Portrait of a woman swimming in open water with wetsuit and buoy
Open water swimming has a long list of benefits. (Getty Images)

First off, the growing interest in open water swimming is likely because the benefits are so vast and varied.

In terms of the physical, Berry explains (whose community actively engages in open water swimming), "It definitely gets your heart rate up, and helps you get a bit stronger because you're using the big muscle groups you need to move yourself forward.

"It’s also non weight bearing, which means your chances of getting injured are much less than other weight bearing exercises like running. It’s good from a mobility point of view too, which is great for your flexibility. Physically, it’s a brilliant thing to be able to do."

In terms of mental health benefits, Berry adds, "It’s a great way to be outside with nature. There’s so much research that proves being active with others outside is something that massively helps with your mental health.

"Often the social connection means you’re getting away from day-to-day life and the people you meet and swim with are usually some of your best friends too. You can connect with others and with nature in one."

Skinner, whose not an open water swimmer herself, but has observed its surge, says, "It could tie into a general appreciation of outdoor fitness, a trend that has been developing since the pandemic years.

"We're seeing a rise in the amount of 'unscheduled' fitness as well – so things like a hike or swim with friends, instead of a scheduled gym workout. There could be more flexibility and freedom found in this type of fitness." From run clubs to group sports games, there's no denying the demand for community-based fitness.

Skinner also points to the benefits of cold water (typically the case with open water swimming, in the UK at least...) supported by growing research, including a reduction in muscular pain and tension, benefits for circulation and immunity, and mood.

Open water swimming. (Getty Images)
You might find a fitness community in open water swimming. (Getty Images)

Looking at research published in 2023 by Outdoor Swimmer, Berry highlights that growth in open water swimming continues to be driven by women, who made up 77% of the survey sample, up from 73% the year before and 55% before the pandemic. A quarter of respondents were 40-49, while just over a third were 50-59 and a fifth in their 60s.

The most common motivation cited was for mental health and general wellbeing, the first choice of one-third of respondents and a second choice for 22%. The next most popular motivation was for physical health and fitness, the first choice of just under one-fifth of people and the second most important for 26%.

"We're definitely seeing an increase in women swimming, which is brilliant," says Mel.

For some women, regular outdoor swimming also helps them manage menopause symptoms. One study by University College London found swimming in cold water can significantly reduce symptoms including anxiety (reported by 46.9% of women with the menopause), mood swings (34.5%), low mood (31.1%) and hot flushes (30.3%).

More than six in 10 (63.3%) of women said they swam specifically to address menopausal symptoms.

However, generic wetsuits haven't properly catered to the changing female body (particularly common during perimenopause/menopause) – until now, thanks to apparel brand HUUB working with Her Spirit.

"We can start to get a little more belly fat around our waists and other areas, which is because our oestrogen levels drop," explains Berry.

"So it’s really really important that brands like HUUB have taken the opportunity to support so many women to get something targeted at them.

"Having worked with the team at HUUB, we asked our community about their body shapes, and that fed into the changes for this new wetsuit, which has been well received by so many women who haven’t been able to get a wetsuit that fits them in the past but now can and love swimming in it." We may now see the numbers of women who enjoy open water swimming increase even further.

And of course, circling back to the benefits, it seems women in particular favour the community element, or "shared values within groups of women who swim together", says Skinner.

Professional triathlete swimming in river's open water. Man wearing swim equipment practicing triathlon on the beach in summer's day. Concept of healthy lifestyle, sport, action, motion and movement.
Consider whether open water swimming is right for you and your health and engage in it safely. (Getty Images)

Aside from all the usual kit, here are Berry's tops tips to remember before getting in the water.

  • Go where it's safe – check if the lake or sea has a lifeguard and provisions to support you should something happen

  • If this isn't possible definitely go with someone (or many people) so you can look out for each other

Cold water is something to be aware of, as this can lead to a fight or flight stage where your heart rate goes up and your breathing can become more shallow

  • Cold water swimming is anything below 12-14 degrees (your swimming pool will usually be between 26-30)

  • In a lot of open water swimming places you can't put your feet down, so you need the competency to swim a distance

  • Use a tow float, which many people, including Berry, use when swimming

  • If you do get in danger you can grab hold of it, giving you the ability to take a breath until (if you need) somebody gets to you

  • If you are swimming by yourself most tow floats allow you to put a mobile phone in it

"Open water swimming is a great thing to do, but it's always important to be safe," says Berry.

Watch: Lorraine and Jason Donovan discuss open water swimming