Staying Fit in Nature

Covid restrictions have scuppered our chances of going to the gym so people are coming up with alternative ways to get their exercise fix. In this feature piece our MA International Journalism student, Beth Milton investigates how Swansea locals are embracing the great outdoors to stay fit and mentally healthy.

Caswell Bay. Image by Beth Milton

The thought of paddling in icy cold water on a rainy day was never something that really appealed to me until Covid-19 happened. With lockdown restrictions impacting people’s access to leisure centres since March, this has led to drastic changes in our fitness habits.

In light of these restrictions, I found myself staring at the sea by Caswell beach in Swansea wondering why there were people happily splashing about in the freezing cold. It turns out outdoor swimming’s popularity is on the rise. As many as 7.5 million Brits have been recorded outdoor swimming in 2018 with the trend increasing.

The interest in outdoor swimming has led to the creation of Mental Health Swims. Rachel Ashe, the founder of the group, said the idea came about from a New Year’s Day swim in Scotland after suffering with a period of bad mental health. The immense positive feelings from the swim encouraged Rachel to share her experience and in September 2019 the first community swim was organised at Caswell Bay in Swansea.

With 30 people turning up to join in, monthly swims were arranged to help bolster the project. However, as we all know too well, Covid had other ideas. The lockdown restrictions saw an end to physical meet ups and members of the group turned on their cameras and logged onto Zoom.

Zoom ‘swims’ were a stepping stone to the groups expansion as after the first lockdown the group were able to organise up to 60 swims across the UK. Zoom allowed the group to interact and stay in contact with other members across the UK. It emphasises how the virus has encouraged people to be creative and turn to alternative forms of exercising as well as new ways to socialise also.

Sports England report how physical activity leads to people feeling less lonely because it “can bring people together, build trust, and release isolation”. It’s no wonder then why have people have joined the Mental Health Swims group.

One of the main aims of the Mental Health Swims group was to create a feeling of community to help with the loneliness experienced during Covid-19. They want people to feel welcome whether they come along for a swim or even just to watch. The atmosphere of the swim meets is non-judgmental, making it a safe place for all those wanting to get involved.

Rachel Ashe explained “we’re really trying to encourage as much diversity as possible in our swims, we have an inclusivity advocate to interview swimmers from marginalised groups to help people realise they are welcome”.

With an emphasis on community, Mental Health Swims is a fitness group trying to provide opportunities for social and physical activity. The benefits of outdoor swimming include; improved libido, boosted immune system, better circulation, increased metabolism, improved fertility and the release of endorphins that helps with stress and anxious feelings. But it is the mental health benefits of outdoor swimming that makes it an attractive form of self-care to its participants.

In this audio clip Rachel Ashe talks about the benefits of cold water swimming

With members describing a sense of euphoria from the cold-water swims, it’s no surprise why they are so keen for others to experience the sensation. With a growing interest on social media, the Mental Health Swims group has launched its first Crowdfunder. Currently, it doesn’t receive any funding so the group is reliant on donations and its hard-working volunteers. Seeking £15,000, the group wants to provide mental health training to swim hosts so the mental health needs are met for vulnerable individuals who come to the swim meets. It also wants to offer free introductions to cold water swimming with trained coaches to make new participants feel confident in the water.

The future plans for Mental Health Swims show how in demand alternative forms of exercise are, with people seeking out new activities. After periods of long isolation and lockdowns, the demand for outdoor exercises is huge as people seek to make the most of the outdoors whilst they still can.

Mental Health Swims isn’t the only fitness group in Swansea advocating about the benefits of outdoor exercise. With yoga being one of the most popular exercises in the UK, Covid restrictions saw interest levels in the exercise peak. During 2020, around 460,000 Brits took part in yoga classes per week. With the popularity of yoga increasing Delyth Rees, who runs Swansea’s Free Self-Yoga, saw an opportunity to take her teaching practice outdoors so it was more accessible during the pandemic.

Rees states “obviously, Covid has made indoor classes pretty untenable and financially unviable. As I hired venues previously, finding somewhere, where rates make teaching worthwhile, is really difficult. Luckily, I’ve taught outdoor classes during Spring/Summer/ Autumn since 2016, so I was happy and prepared to do so again”.

Outside yoga. Image by Beth Milton

With Rees providing outdoor classes, it meant she could run them as donation only meaning people who wouldn’t normally attend yoga classes could do so regardless of their financial situation. Teaching outdoors has also helped introduce people to the benefits of exercise.

Rees describes outdoor classes as “adding to the serenity of the sessions. Yoga is all about breath. Fresh air definitely aids this. And the sunset/sunrise sessions are always spectacular- especially in September”.

With the emphasis of yoga being on breath, the mind/body and breath, this integration helps the benefits of yoga go even further. Yoga is performed as a series of movements/postures (asana) which tone and strengthen your body, helping with physical benefits as well as mental. It has been reported that some of the benefits of yoga are general better wellbeing, flexibility, stronger joints and better blood flow.

The flexibility of yoga practice means it welcomes people of all ages and backgrounds, making itself an inclusive exercise. The Free Self-Yoga Group has found its outdoor sessions as a good way for people to meet, chat and get out of the house. The levels of loneliness many people are experiencing and the impact on people’s mental health of isolation is great. The ability to get out once or twice a week in a safe environment is definitely beneficial and to feel part of group helps build a sense of community people have been lacking.

Free Self-Yoga doesn’t just stop at putting outdoor classes on for Swansea locals. Teaching outdoors also meant Rees was able to add a post-class sea swim, which is good fun and helps to build a sense of community. As a result of this, Rees has joined up with Mental Health Swims to run a monthly before work swim at Rotherslade. The integration of the two exercise movements shows the popularity in people seeking outdoor exercise.

Rees believes that “Being outside is really beneficial to your overall mental wellbeing, and I feel adding exercise, whether that’s walking, running, yoga or swimming just adds to this”.

Whilst the benefits of exercise are well known, the importance of being outdoors takes these benefits even further. After extensive periods of being indoors, now is the time to pick up new hobbies and try out things we never thought we would. With accessibility to leisure and fitness centres continuing to be an issue for most across the UK, groups such as Mental Health Swims and Free Self-Yoga provide safe fun alternatives to people’s normal workout routines. But most importantly, they offer a sense of community. With loneliness effecting all of us during Covid, the time to be part of something has never been greater.

Even if it does mean running into freezing cold water…