Chilly Dippers is a social initiative focusing on the physical and mental health benefits of cold-water swimming. It was set up by Liv Sharron, a student in her final year at Edinburgh University.
Liv, why did you set up Chilly Dippers?
I was inspired by so many students having mental health issues with no real space to talk about it. Knowing how good for you cold-water swimming can be, I challenged people on Instagram to find some water, record their swim, and tag three friends to spread the word. Over the cold Easter months, that’s exactly what they did. Students all over the country plunged into icy lakes and rivers, and experienced for themselves how cold water increases adrenaline and endorphins within the body – making you feel you’re on cloud 9!
When did you first experience the positive effects of cold-water swimming?
I've always been a swimmer and have taken dips all over the country but especially in (cold) Scotland with my family. I love the whole ‘in the moment’ experience and how it washes away the stresses and strains of life. As a student, when I'd worry about what my friends were thinking or had deeper existential crises, I’d head for the beach 20 minutes away for a solo swim and would instantly feel the anxiety lift when I slipped into the cold water abyss of the sea! Your body enters ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, where it is made to prioritise YOU and your life! How do you stay afloat? How do you stay warm? It makes you realise that day-to-day anxieties are trivial.
Does medical evidence support your contention that swimming in cold water is good for health?
Yes, it confirms that the shock of cold water sends endorphins (the happiness hormone) around your body, as well as pumping red blood cells to get your body working properly.
Your body enters ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. How do you stay afloat? How do you stay warm? It makes you realise that day-to-day anxieties are trivial.
When was the first Chilly Dippers swim and how did it go?
The first one was in early March 2019 – Baltically chilly even by my standards! To my amazement, 80-100 students turned up at 9 in the morning, half-naked, and ran into the North Sea to experience the benefits of cold water therapy for themselves. As it was so cold, we started the meeting with a 20-minute Zumba lesson. A girl in Edinburgh who had struggled with mental health issues and used Zumba to combat them offered to teach us some routines. When we finished, we swapped our raincoats for swimming costumes and ran into the sea, in unison. We were back in the library an hour later. What a way to kick off your day!
One of the side benefits of the swim was that it brought the 1st-4th year Edinburgh Uni students together in such an intimate way. These year groups would never usually mingle, but by freezing their tits off in a group swim, they forged a tightknit community.
Is cold-water swimming more popular with men or women, or is that a daft question?
Not daft at all – I thought many more men would turn up, not just as a way to show off their abs (!) but because swimming in a costume means putting a lot of your body on display and I thought quite a few women would be body-conscious, but in fact I've been astonished at how much body-positivity is shown at all the dips.
The actor Josh O’Connor who is playing Prince Charles in series 3 of The Crown came to our dip at The Serpentine Lido. He mentioned how he swims for mental health reasons and I think a lot of men use this form of endurance sport to exercise their mind without necessarily having to talk about it.
Is it best in the sea, in lakes or rivers?
I prefer the sea. It makes problems seem insignificant when you look out into the endless big blue. However, at my grandparents home in Hampshire/ Berkshire there are lots of little rivers which add an element of surprise as you never quite know what you will find beneath! Any form of cold water brings benefits, though. Even a cold shower in the morning is enough to release the endorphins your body needs to drive you on for the day!
Most people don’t relish the idea of plunging into cold water in mid-Winter. How long does it take before you actually begin to enjoy it?
For me, it’s from the moment I hit the water. The initial shock – that’s where the fight-or-flight kicks in, that’s when the red blood cells start pumping over your body and you realise what you’ve done is actually quite nuts! I tend to not stay in for long in the winter, but (pardon the pun) you tend to warm to the idea of staying in cold water once you get past the initial shock!
Liv swimming in the Thames at Port Meadow, Oxford
Is there a charge for attending a Chilly Dip?
No. We did have one event that was ticketed, but the money went towards a charity very close to my heart for a friend at Edinburgh who sadly committed suicide. As we get bigger, I hope to have more Zumba and Yoga classes before the swims, as well as food and hot drinks afterwards, and for those there'll be a charge.
It’s worth mentioning that we have a group page on Facebook called The Chilly Dippers which acts as a sort of forum. Someone could post “heading off to this beach at this time with 3 spare seats in my car, anyone want to come?” and in effect create their own Chilly Dip.
Is the therapy aspect all in the swimming or do swimmers get together afterwards and discuss their issues?
After the swims, we have a big breakfast – usually sponsored – and everyone comes together. Whether people want to talk about their issues or not, the option is there. I also operate quite openly on Instagram with my phone number in case anyone needs to call me for advice, or they can message the Chilly Dippers instagram. I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have opened up to me about their struggles – some of them close friends who I had no idea were struggling.
How many Chilly Dipper events have you organised now and when is your next swim?
Since the first event, we’ve had a dip in London with 80 young people coming straight from their offices to strip down into their swimmers and jump into the Serpentine, followed by a sponsored breakfast and chat afterwards. In Edinburgh, the next swim is Sunday 10th November, at 9am on Portobello Beach. We’ll continue with the Edinburgh dips as far into the winter as we can.
Chilly Dippers linked up with Rude Health for dips in the Serpentine in July
What is your ambition for the programme and how are you going to get there?
I want to continue leading swims but also to create more digital content about the benefits of swimming to mental health. We have had some videos made, but it would be brilliant to be able to make a documentary telling the stories of particular individuals, so that others can see the benefits for themselves, and get involved if they want to. The whole subject of how sport – whether swimming, hiking, walking or anything else – benefits the mind is something that deserves a wider airing.