Wild swimmers describe 'fundamentally life-changing' effects of cold water to ITV Wales reporter Katie Fenton
It's no secret that wild - or cold water - swimming has grown in popularity over the last few years.
But when a married couple from Cardiff started a free wild swimming group for city residents in lockdown, they had no idea just how popular it would prove to be.
Chris Kelly and Lucy Prisk started The Taffy Dippers in July 2020, when Covid restrictions meant spending time outdoors was limited by time and distance.
Holding regular meet-ups in several spots along the River Taff, the group has since grown to more than 6,000 members.
"Within that first week I think we had about 500 members, so we thought we better do a meet-up," Chris said.
"30 people came along and it was amazing, joyful.
"We were obviously keeping our distances because there were still Covid restrictions in place, but just the relief on people's faces to do something that was a bit out the norm.
"It's on your doorstep so it's an easy hobby to do to get yourself out the house, especially during the pandemic that we've all been through. It's freedom."
The group swims in the Taff at Radyr Weir, near Hailey Park in Llandaff, and near Llantrisant.
Members carry out a litter pick after every swim, and said they are careful not to disturb wildlife.
Being a member also guarantees a safer swim.
"There's always people looking out for each other," Chris explained.
"We never swim alone, we never swim after heavy rain because the river can be flowing really fast, but it can also be a bit dirtier."
Roberta Fox-Braddock has osteoarthritis, which causes pain and stiffness in the joints. She swims virtually every day, and said it has significantly improved her mental and physical health.
"I had to give up everything I loved doing. I used to run, I used to cycle, go to the gym, and I can't do any of that now.
"But it was something that I could do. I can get into water, and I might not be the most graceful, but I just love the cold, it helps with my joints, it stops itches, it's just bliss.
"My husband said it has been lovely to see my laughing gratuitously.
"This time last year I was in quite a state and my mental health wasn't the best, and since I've been able to get in and out of the water, it just makes me incredibly happy. It's a gift."
Emma Lancastle has suffered with depression for as long as she can remember, and said swimming has changed her life.
"My whole life I've just been searching for something that makes me feel just a little bit less sad, that's all I ever was hoping for," she said.
"When I was swimming regularly I was starting to notice that my mood wasn't dipping in the same way that it normally would.
"I'm 31 years old now and to have finally found something that actually makes a difference was fundamentally life-changing."
Why is wild swimming so good for you?
Physiologist and wild swimming expert Cat Hindson said getting into cold water triggers a release of feel good hormones including beta-Endorphins and noradrenalin.
"The beta-Endorphins are a pain relief in the brain, but they also give you that buzzy feeling you get after you dip," she explained.
"Noradrenalin is really good for reducing inflammation, so with conditions like osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, the cold water can be really therapeutic."
She added that regular dipping can also help the body better protect itself from illness.
"When people start to dip more often they adapt to the cold, so their body physiologically changes so they're better able to deal with that stress.
"It's believed that there's a cross-adaption, so when you can deal with the stress of the cold water, you can also deal with mental stress, so stress of everyday life, or stress of the immune system.
"A lot of swimmers will say they don't get a cold - that's because their immune system is boosted so that with the stress of, say, a cold, they do still get the bug, but they deal with it so quickly that they don't notice the symptoms as other people do."
Cat said the sense of community that comes with wild swimming groups also has psychological benefits.
"You're all coming together, doing something that's a bit of a challenge for everyone.
"A lot of people come and they're not sure they want to get in the water, but when you all do it together that sense of community really brings a lot of mental benefits for people."