My friends think I’m mad. (Yes, I know, I know.) But I’m not, actually – or at least, in respect of my habit of sea-bathing. Because I happen to have the ocean at the end of my road, on the South Coast – a ten-minute saunter away. And between around the beginning of June and late October, unless the red flag’s actually flying, I’m in there. Not for hours – just five or ten minutes or so. Ideally at lunchtime, with a snack and a bottle of water – or maybe tea-time, depending on high tide.
Over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve become convinced of the benefits of swimming in the sea – and am only surprised that more people don’t follow our lead. (The other half of ‘our’ being my husband, the ‘equally mad’ Craig – or so friends would have it; sometimes it’s the only daylight time we get to spend together, between morning tea and dinner – despite the fact we work in adjoining offices.)
I suppose if I called it ‘thalassotherapy’ – as the Ancient Greeks did (the word was coined by Hippocrates in the 4th Century BC) – then people might not think I’m quite so weird. It comes from the Greek thalassa, meaning water, and therapia, meaning ‘to cure’. The Greeks believed – as I certainly do – that immersing in mineral-rich seawater offered many different health benefits. Back in the 18th Century, doctors would prescribe visits to ‘bathing hospitals’ – special clinics which offered sea-water treatments. In many locations – notably Brittany – people even now pay small fortunes to be dunked in sea-water and/or slathered in seaweed. So why am I bonkers for taking advantage of the fact I can get it for free…?
According to experts, sea-water can help overall wellbeing by improving immune function, boosting circulation (there’s nothing quite like the heart-accelerating rush from making a dash into the waves), and even hydrating skin. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, since sea-water contains salt – which we consider to be dehydrating – but whereas when I have a bath I often immediately feel I have to slather on moisturiser, or my skin feels like it’s too tight for my body, the same isn’t true of my daily sea-splash. (Don’t ask me what it does to hair, though. I have hair ‘issues’. Only John Frieda’s stylists truly know how to tackle my hair, and thus I have perfected the art of swimming like the Loch Ness Monster.)
Sea-water contains the same 84 vital elements as the human body – in fact, blood plasma has almost the exact concentration of minerals and trace elements. It’s rich in iodine – which boosts thyroid activity and supports our immune function. And in particular, one of the reasons sea-water’s so good for us is its high levels of magnesium. In winter, I am known to throw handfuls of BetterYou Magnesium Salts in my bath – but in summer, I don’t feel like I need to. Magnesium is one of nature’s wonder minerals – said to be helpful for aches and pains, arthritis, asthma and more.
I’ve never subscribed to the idea that our skin is like a raincoat – keeping everything out – and so it makes sense to me that magnesium, along with those other minerals, would be absorbed while I’m swimming around one side or other of my seaside town’s harbour arm (a barrier which ensures that whichever way the wind’s blowing, there’s always a safe, swimmable side). If you don’t happen to have an ocean (or even the Channel) within striking distance, it is of course possible to enjoy some of the benefits of a sea dip by adding plenty of magnesium salts to your bathwater. But you’ll still be missing out on the other health bonuses. (As for those doubting folk who look askance and tell me of the risks of picking up tummy upsets – or worse – from sea-water, all I can say is: it’s never happened to me. Not once, in 16 seasons of daily swimming.)
It’s what the sea does for my brain and my stress levels, though, which lures me down to the shingle day after day. Nothing beats a 4 p.m. mid-afternoon slump like a sea-swim, as far as I’m concerned; even without a flask of Lapsang Souchong in my beach-basket, I return to my computer revved-up and full of energy. If I’ve got a particular problem gnawing away at me, often the solution will come to me when I’m paddling around, staring at the horizon. It reconnects me with nature, and grounds me. Gardening does the same, but when I’m sitting in my garden I’m constantly leaping up to dead-head this or that – whereas on the beach, there’s nothing to do but r-e-l-a-x. On the beach, time somehow slows.
I certainly never take it for granted that I happen to have ended up five minutes from a beach in a town that battles it out with Torquay and Eastbourne for the sunniest spot in Britain. But what astonishes me is that quite often, we may be the only people on the beach – enjoying the delights of a refreshing swim and taking advantage of its build-in free health boost – in a town of 40,000 people.
If you ask me, they’re the crazy ones.