What Are the Health Benefits of Swimming in Sea Water?

Many people see the ocean as a way to relax and get away from the chaos of everyday life. However, the benefits of swimming in the ocean extend beyond stress-relieving qualities. It strengthens muscles, increases endurance, boosts skin health and can even improve your mood.

There are many benefits to swimming in sea water.
Image Credit: Gary Yeowell/DigitalVision/GettyImages

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Open water swimming is an excellent way to increase endurance and strength. Stress relief, improved mood and healthier skin are also among the benefits of swimming in the ocean. Swimming in sea water exposes your body to important minerals too.

Read more: How to Build Muscle Swimming

Improve Endurance and Strength

Swimming in the ocean is classified as open water swimming. There's a reason that open water swimming is part of fitness competitions such as triathlons — this type of exercise challenges your body differently to your typical workout in a swimming pool.

Swimming in the ocean introduces potential hazards, including severe temperatures and limited visibility. Currents, waves and tides present unpredictable changes in water resistance. In addition, marine life such as jellyfish and the ever-dreaded shark can cause physical injury.

Before swimming in the ocean, be aware of these potential hazards — and don't venture out alone. In addition, consider wearing a wetsuit to help protect against hypothermia.

Open water swimming requires significant endurance and strength. According to an article published in the May 2017 issue of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, competitive open water swimmers were shown to have the ability to exercise at the upper limits of their VO2max for prolonged periods of time.

VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body is able to use during exercise, and is one measure of cardiovascular fitness, according to the American Council on Exercise. Open water swimming athletes were found to be able to swim at 80 to 90 percent of their VO2max for several hours at a time.

Another one of the effects of swimming in the ocean is building a strong core. Not only do you have to hold your core tight as you propel forward through the water, but your body has to continually resist side-to-side forces from the surrounding waves.

Consider Other Health Benefits

Sea water has long been recognized for its potential health benefits — one of the advantages of swimming in the ocean. In fact, the famous Dead Sea is well-known for its healing properties.

According to a research review published by Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism in October 2012, soaking in the Dead Sea has been shown to reduce pain and improve joint motion in people who have arthritis.

Sea water has also been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of psoriasis — a skin condition that causes red, scaly, itchy patches of skin that can also be painful, as explained by the Mayo Clinic.

Sea water is high in minerals — particularly magnesium. This mineral is key for many body functions. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, magnesium is important for healthy bones, muscles and nerves. The mineral also helps to regulate blood pressure and metabolize insulin.

According to a research review published by Nutrients in August 2017, magnesium levels in the body were shown to increase after 60 to 120 minutes of immersion in sea water in one of the studies reviewed. However, overall, evidence is lacking to support the absorption of magnesium through the skin.

However, if you don't have regular access to the ocean, you can still enjoy these potential benefits with Epsom salt — a mixture of magnesium and sulfate — in your bath at home. Mix 1.25 cups of Epsom salt into your hot bath and soak for at least 15 minutes, as recommended by the Cleveland Clinic.

Boost Your Mood

Swimming in the sea could potentially be beneficial to mental health. A case study published in August 2018 by British Medical Journal Case Reports examined the effects of weekly open water swimming on major depressive disorder in a 24-year-old female.

The study found that cold open water swimming caused an immediate improvement in mood for this individual and a cumulative reduction in depression symptoms with continued participation.

Whether or not open water swimming is your type of activity, exercise in general releases endorphins, or "feel good" chemicals in the brain, as explained by Harvard Health Publishing. The key to using exercise for improved mood is consistent participation in an activity you enjoy.

Read more: How to Swim Laps for Exercise (and Actually Enjoy It)

Follow These Safety Tips

To fully reap the benefits of swimming in the ocean, follow these tips for open water swimming:

Practice in a pool. Be sure you are confident in your swimming abilities — in a controlled environment such as a pool — before venturing out into the open water.

Perfect your stroke. The most common stroke used in open water swimming is the front crawl, according to Swim England. Swim laps in a pool first to start building your front crawl endurance.

Have a back-up stroke. There's a high probability that you will get tired while swimming in the ocean. Having a back-up stroke that utilizes less energy or relies on slightly different muscle groups can allow you some active rest. Swim England recommends the breaststroke, as it requires less energy than the front crawl.

Breathe to both sides. While you might prefer to turn to one specific side to breathe while swimming, practice breathing on both sides so you can turn away from waves.

Tread water. When open water swimming, you won't have the option to put your feet on the ground or hold on to the edge of the pool if you get tired. Practice treading water for extended periods of time in the deep end of a pool.

Practice sighting. It's easy to lose your sense of direction when swimming in the ocean. For this reason, Swim England recommends practicing swimming in a straight line in a pool. To do this, close your eyes and attempt to swim in a straight line, without veering to either side. Periodically open your eyes to check your progress. Practice swimming with your head up — in open water you might use a marker in the distance to keep yourself oriented.

Swim in a group. Open water swimming is often done in groups — particularly if you ever decide to compete in an athletic event. Practice swimming in a straight line in close proximity to a group of your friends.

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