Swimming turned my health around. Don’t close down an essential service.

I have to be honest, the closure of swimming pools in Liverpool this week has left me reeling. Yes, I’m concerned about rising cases, but transmission in leisure centres has yet to be demonstrated and their closure will only increase the risk of burdening the NHS.

When we first went into lockdown in March, the only consistent message beyond ‘stay at home’ was to keep exercising and get outside. As we hurtle towards a long, cold winter, exercising outdoors will be for the stoic few. Access to an indoor pool in winter has never been so important. And though I don’t want to dismiss the importance of gyms, swimming, unlike weights or cardio exercises, just can’t be replicated at home.

One of the first things I noted when we locked down was the fact I wouldn’t be able to swim. Odd, you might think, given there were plenty of other things to worry about. But I’d been swimming a few times a week for five months, and it’d had such a positive outcome on my health that the idea of not being able to swim gave me anxiety. 

Because it was the rehabilitation for my chronic pain I never knew I’d needed. Swimming worked on the physical aspects of my ongoing ill health, as well as the depression that accompanied it. Issues I’d had for 18 months soon become the exception, not the rule, because of swimming.

When that was taken away, I felt bereft. For so long my body hadn’t felt like mine as I tried to deal with pain I couldn’t shake. Swimming had started to help me feel physically and mentally strong again, and the months in lockdown without it have almost reversed my progress. Leisure centres will close again under the new tiered lockdown system, which has already come into force in Liverpool, and in Lancashire from 17 October. I worry there are more people like me whose health will suffer further.

Swimming is an exercise that’s available to many, its low impact benefits often recommended for those with injuries, balance issues, or living with disabilities. It has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression for 1.4 million adults in the UK in 2018. Almost half a million adults with mental health problems reported seeing their doctor less for their mental health as a result. Almost the same number say they were able to stop taking medication because of regular swimming. It’s topical, as anxiety and depression has soared as a result of lockdown restrictions, with the study author saying it was “far in excess of levels usually seen in the UK.” 

For me, swimming meant I could stop a physiotherapy programme I’d been tied to for a year. With physiotherapy appointments still limited and restricted for many practices, swimming is an excellent alternative. Hitting the pool helped me build strength in a way that walking, cycling or yoga doesn’t. But perhaps most monumentally, it confirmed that exercise was still accessible to me, after I’d been living in a cycle of a pain-induced fear of exercise. That realisation was a huge turning point – it gave me a huge confidence boost, which did wonders for my mental health. 

The death knell for leisure centres?

Leisure centres have already suffered huge economic blows and further closures will rob communities of a vital facility. Industry bodies have previously warned that 1,300 of the 2,727 local authority leisure centres, and 20% of the UK’s swimming pools could permanently close in the next six months. My local pool in south London is one of the casualties, and I’ve acutely felt the effects of its lengthy absence. If other regions move into tier 3, it will undoubtedly keep many more leisure centre doors permanently shut.

Since the pandemic forced their closure, leisure centres have long insisted their Covid security was ready within weeks of lockdown to help communities come back safely, with minimal admittance, extra hygiene measures and temperature checks. These measures go way beyond what I’ve experienced in hospitality venues, which are allowed to stay open in a tier 3 lockdown.

Swimming pools ought to be one of the safest public places to be, with the World Health Organisation stating coronavirus would be inactive in chlorinated water. Recent data showed the prevalence of coronavirus in pools, leisure centres and gyms is ‘extremely low’. It found only 78 confirmed cases out of 22 million visits between 25 July and 13 September – the cases per 100,000 measured at 0.34. According to Swim England, “cases represented incidents where public health authorities informed operators of a positive result within a certain time period of a user visiting a facility – rather than indicating transmission in the leisure centre environment specifically.”

But perhaps most crucially is how swimming brings savings in community health. The most recent Value of Swimming data shows a health saving of £357 million per year for the NHS and social care. Physical activity diverts the need for people to use the NHS to treat preventable diseases. Its impact includes reduced GP visits and reduction of occurrence and management of chronic conditions such as diabetes, depression and dementia. It also has a key role to play in helping to achieve the government’s obesity reduction strategy.

Swimming and leisure bodies are now asking the government for consultation before closing pools under a tier three lockdown, and several petitions have launched online, which have garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures. “Our sector must be allowed to play its full role in supporting the nation’s physical and mental resilience to COVID-19 at this time,” says CEO of ukactive Huw Edwards. I only hope the government listens, because what happens next really is sink or swim for the nation’s health.

EDIT 19 Oct 2020: Since this post was published, Lancashire negotiated for gyms and leisure centres to remain open in tier 3 restrictions. Liverpool’s gyms and leisure centres remain closed.