Worrying about quality of fresh waterways is stressful. You can do far more for the environment, and your own mental health, by visiting a river and swimming in it.

The dirty little secret behind all the fuss about measuring swimmable quality of rivers, is that very few of us are actually swimming in them.

A Horizon poll by our Swim Fresh campaign showed that 62% of us did not swim in a river or lake over the previous year.

One third said it was too cold, and another quarter said swimming in a river wasn’t their thing. 29% said they didn’t swim due to worry about water quality.

The good news that almost 80% of us were alongside a river or lake at least once during the past year.

Of that eighty percent, one third were there more than once a month, and another third once every two months. The other third were there fewer than five times.

The passionate 30% of us who use waterways more than 15 times a year are more likely to swim (about 3 swims for every 10 visits) and are also more likely to cite concern about quality as a reason for not swimming.

The New Zealanders alongside rivers and lakes most often are farmers and farm workers (48% and 58% over 15 times a year). Business owners, business execuives and government officials were also high users – with an average of 35% of these groups visiting waterways more than 15 times in the past year.

There’s a socio-economic disparity in the statistics. The passionate 30% are generally wealthier. The lower your income and education, the less likely you are to visit a waterway. In fact, the single largest group of people who have not visited a fresh waterway in the past year are the unemployed (41% had not).

The average New Zealander visits a river or lake four to five times a year, and for recreation other than swimming.

This tells a story of less engagement with waterways than our cultural enthusiasm suggests. How can you really say you care about rivers if you don’t visit them much or at all?

We established the Swim Fresh campaign to encourage people to show they care by visiting our waterways, and where possible swimming in them. Real world engagement with rivers will signal to decisionmakers that we care – because we are there. Clicking angrily at your keyboard in suburbia is shallow and stressful.

There’s another reason to engage with our waterways; your mental health. Interaction with nature, and with water in particular, is good for you. Psychologists have shown that experience of waterways, even just being alongside them, can improve your sense of empathy, positiveness and self-awareness.

Being in them is even better. Scientists have shown that when we are in water the neurochemicals that relay stress signals in the brain recalibrate to low levels, reducing stress and anxiety.

The quality of our waterways has been controversial. There’s plenty of evidence that the quality of life sustainable by some waterways has been badly affected by human use of the surrounding land. But there’s far more waterways that can still be visited, used and swum in.

What we see in the data is that the more often you visit our fresh waterways, the more you care about them, and the more likely you are to go for a swim.

So we reckon more New Zealanders should visit our waterways more often – for the health of the environment and themselves.