The recent surge in popularity of wild swimming (also referred to as open water swimming or cold water swimming), or swimming in natural ‘blue spaces’, including rivers, lakes or the sea, has highlighted the significant scale of opportunity to leverage the use of blue spaces as community assets to combat health inequalities.
However, despite the well documented physical and mental health benefits of wild swimming that are relevant to large groups of the population suffering from ill health, current prevention and intervention strategies that focus on wild swimming to mitigate health inequalities tend to be local, place-based and disparate, and lack an overall joined-up approach that would allow them to be
scaled up to benefit whole communities as part of established health policy.
In collaboration with our project partners (Swim England, Black Swimming Association, The National Trust, Freshwater Biological Association, UK Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, Leicestershire County Council, Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Social Prescribing at Partners Health, and Thrive health content developers), we have identified one of the main barriers to scaling up successful place based approaches: the current lack of integrated information about the mental and physical health benefits of wild swimming alongside the risks related to water quality and safety aspects of specific blue spaces that people use for swimming.
Our project will have significant benefits for users within and beyond the academic community. We will develop a new mixed methods approach, drawing on corpus linguistics and narrative analysis, to create effective public health messaging that includes content from a range of academic disciplines. This content, in turn, will be of benefit to promoters and commissioners of wild swimming in the health ecosystem, allowing for scale up of local initiatives. Ultimately our project will benefit the many individuals and diverse communities who will be enabled to enjoy wild swimming in a safe way to improve health, and to gain an increased awareness of the nature of blue spaces and their role as a community asset.
The project ‘Wild Swimming and Blue Spaces: Mobilising interdisciplinary knowledge and partnerships to combat health inequalities at scale’ is funded by AHRC/MRC/NERC, grant reference AH/W007835/1, and runs from January 2022 to January 2023. It is led by the University of Nottingham in collaboration with Cardiff University and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, and working in partnership with Swim England, Black Swimming Association, The National Trust, Freshwater Biological Association, UK Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, Leicestershire County Council, Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Partners Health, and Thrive Agency.
Illustrations copyright Carol Adlam