Exercise for the feeling - not the photo? Who'd have thought it

Fueled by nostalgia I recently set about auditing my musical back catalogue. The findings were rather intriguing. One too many Katy Perry playlists than I would like to admit to, a smattering of Dolly Parton and a clear penchant for nineties Britpop were all uncovered.

Photography by Jimmy Marble

Photography by Jimmy Marble

Amidst this enlightening regression I rediscovered indie rock brand Everything Everything and their song Torso of the Week. Its opening line, “Girl you’ve been hitting the treadmill like a freak,” struck a chord, for in that moment I was quite literally hobbling home post-run contemplating why I, and so many others opt to exercise. Could I seek to understand as the song alludes to, what you’re wrestling with?

A highly emotive topic of conversation, our reasoning is rarely as simple as wanting to keep fit and well. While this obviously informs the decision, the drivers of physical movement are complex, for they are often linked to how we feel about ourselves both on the inside and the outside.

Known for my competitive streak, which has more than once, manifest itself in the throwing of badminton rackets courtside in the wake of unjust loss, my relationship with exercise and physical activity is most certainly goal driven. I keep moving in pursuit of the next personal best, my enjoyment and satisfaction predicated on whether I can reach the euphoric heights of the elusive runners high.

Like many others slogging it out in gyms across the country there is a certain element of grinning and bearing it in the quest for our individual and unique end goals. Whether you’re after the ‘perfect’ picture for the grid or wanting to smash those personal bests, much of our quest to be fit is image driven and is often based upon how we want to be viewed and perceived by our peers. Rather than an act of self-love are we seeking our validation from the wrong sources and are we therefore missing out on the pleasure from less intense but more nourishing forms of movement?

In the quest to better understand the impetus for exercise I came across writer and swimmer Ella Foote, whom I discovered on Instagram and whose approach to swimming as an act of self-care encouraged a volte-face in my understanding of exercise and wellbeing. Her Dip a Day project, which saw her swim every day of December in rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea is not only inspiring but a useful reminder of the joy to be found in immersing ourselves in the great outdoors.

Learning more about cold-water swimming, its physical and mental benefits, It occurred to me that everything that I had come to relish about exercise, the self-imposed competition, the permission it grants me to eat and drink what I truly desire and the numbing quality of mindless cardio, was futile. Style, finesse and skill are secondary thoughts when the water demands your undivided attention. Rather than swimming away from your woes, the ritual-like quality of outdoor activity, grants you the time and space to come back to yourself; it is a tonic like no other.

Inspired by Ella we wanted to delve deeper into the joy of cold-water swimming, among other sports and hobbies, from aerial hoop, to roller-derby, in an effort to share the stories and experiences of how exercise and movement can be instrumental for better wellbeing and self-esteem. Here we share Ella’s story of finding her escape and why she was called to the water.

Where did your journey with swimming begin?

It began in the sea has a child. Holidays were spent on the beach in Dorset. I have always loved swimming and being in the water. Swimming was something that was a joyful experience. Going to the pool at the weekend with friends, being in and around water on holidays. When I got into corporate life in my twenties, the pool became escape and eventually I took it further.

What was the main factor driving you to take the plunge?

The biggest factor was escape. Escaping the 9-5, escaping my negative feelings about my body, escaping parts of life that were not going to plan. The water always looked after me.

Studies show that cold water swimming and immersion can be attributed to a number of benefits for mental health and an increased sense of wellbeing, what has your experience been of this?

Swimming as a general exercise is brilliant for both physical and mental health. The process of moving your limbs in a way without much thought, leaves the brain to process and sort things on the mind. The consistent movement and pattern of a swim stroke can become meditative.

Add cold water and the increased heart rate, blood flow around the body and rush means you take deeper, more meaningful breaths, you focus your mind and body on the job and not your problems. Being outside in natural light, immersing your senses in nature and breathing fresh air, all adds to the overall wellbeing.

You recently completed your December Dip a Day challenge for the Mental Health Charity Mind, what did you learn about yourself during this process?

The most recent Dip a Day I had challenged myself to swim with a different person each day. This actually became a bigger challenge than the swims. Lots of travelling, meeting new people, tiredness and normal life mixing with anxiety and depression. It could have been the end of me, but it was a reminder that people are kind, generous, and warm. It taught me my support network is bigger than I thought it was and that isolation, hiding away my mental health makes it grow. Saying it out loud, sharing my challenge – takes the power out of it, makes it smaller and more manageable.

Photography by Roger Taylor Photography

Photography by Roger Taylor Photography

Many speak of the cathartic and remedial benefits of cold water swimming, what has been the most important benefit or outcome for you?

Swimming through winter is more like a regular ritual practice, or meditation process. It forces you into your body and demands you pay attention. Taking the time to get to the water is only half the process, you also have to prepare for after the swim – hot drinks, warm, dry clothes. It is like going to a place of worship and you can leave your worries at the water’s edge. Often they then float away.

Can you describe what the experience of taking a dip feels like for the novices among us?

Often what puts first-time cold water swimmers off, is the painful and sharp feelings when you enter the water. Your nerves go berserk, often changing your skin to pink. It is at this stage, when most people can’t bare it that they get out again. The cold is so cold, it feels like your skin is being burnt. But… with a little time, deep breaths, conscious movement in the water, you body calms, the heart-rate drops back to normal and on the other side of that discomfort is the magic. That is where the joy comes from. The elation, the strength and feelings of overcoming the impossible.  

How has swimming on a regular basis changed your life or your perspective?

Swimming helped me find a tribe. A group of people who understand me. It changed my relationship with my body, which hasn’t always been a good one. It helped me find a way to make my passion, my job. Going to the water reminds me that I am a small part of a bigger, beautiful world and that it is always changing. It has helped me be resilient and also to have faith.

Image by Roger Taylor Photography

Image by Roger Taylor Photography

I have some of my most reflective thoughts when running, is this the case for you with swimming? 

Absolutely! In fact I wish I could find a way to have a notepad and pen while swimming. I have the best thoughts for writing, creating when swimming. I come up with better solutions to my problems and better answers to conflict in my relationships. Often when I get out of the water, I can lose these thoughts as quickly as I get dry.

What gets you up in the morning?

A day when I have to put my swimsuit on, is a day I will get up on time, early or with purpose. If the weather looks clear and bright, I will make a sunrise swim. Otherwise, I am driven to my desk by deadlines. The hardest time to get up is when it is grey, no colours or shapes.

What would you like to explore more in 2019?

In 2018 I spent some time in Scotland. In 2019 I would love to head over to Ireland and explore the west coast and south. I think it is important to explore what we have on our doorstop. I always have bigger dreams – New Zealand looks like a wonderful playground for swimmers. Canada, Norway, Sweden and Greece are all options.


How often would you say that you step outside your comfort zone and take risks?

I try to push myself as much as I can. I challenge myself in as many ways as possible. I think if you feel a strong set of feelings towards something, it is something to explore. If I don’t want to do something, I ask myself why. If it is because I am afraid, I ensure I push myself and do it. There is often something wonderful on the other side of fear.

What would your advice be to anyone who wants to venture into the world of cold water swimming? 

Do your research! Learn about where you want to swim and then try and connect with others who swim there. Don’t swim alone, there are plenty of swimmers across the country who will join you for a swim or share a swimming spot. The Outdoor Swimming Society has lots of information on their website and a good community through their social media channels, so there is a lot of ways to meet and discover safe outdoor swimming.

Get confident with your swimming in the pool first. Then go to the outdoors and do a little bit, then a little bit more the next time and work yourself up to do distance or time in the water. Do it for you! I would also begin outdoor swimming in the warmer months and then just don’t stop, swimming weekly is a good way to acclimatize and keep your body going as the temperature drops.

Can you complete this sentence, swimming is...

Like breathing. It is essential for my life. If I don’t get to the water. I feel dry, scratchy and irritated. If I am not feeling right in my mind or body, it is often because I haven’t been to the water in a while.

We would love to hear about your experiences and stories of exercising for the feeling not the photo, you can get in touch with us here.