’You feel like a child again!’ Would exercising at 5am make you a happier person?

Aminute’s silence – a chance to listen to the wind and the waves crashing on to shingle, and look across the Solent to the lights of a cruise ship in the distance – and then we charge into the water, although some of us (me) are more tentative. There are shrieks and gasps from the shock of the cold; grimacing, grinning faces lit up by a portable floodlight.

It is barely 6am, and still dark. It’s also the windiest, rainiest weather this group has ventured out in, but an impressively hardy 12 have turned up. On a good day, about 30 meet each Friday at 5.30am in Gosport, Hampshire, for a two-mile walk along Stokes Bay, followed by a dip in the sea. “It has changed my life,” says one man, who has been coming since the group started last year. He says meeting strangers, and the welcoming atmosphere, has allowed him to open up about his mental health and seek some help. Kerry started coming in October last year and says the weekly meet has helped relieve the seasonal affective disorder she usually suffers from at this time of year. “I used to sleep for 10, 11 hours,” she says. “If you had told me last year I’d be getting up at this time each week to do this, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

The group – Win the Morning, Win the Day – was set up in August last year by Chris Reeves, a physical training instructor in the Royal Navy. He had struggled with isolation and lack of structure to his days throughout the first lockdown, and knew others must be feeling the same. After hearing a podcast with the mixed martial arts fighter Mark Scanlon, talking about the 5.30am circuit training sessions and sea swims he was running in Liverpool, Reeves decided to create his own. Scanlon used the phrase “win the morning, win the day”, which is what Reeves decided to call the group. It’s a mantra popularised by the US entrepreneur and productivity guru Tim Ferriss, which has become popular in motivational circles. Ferriss interviewed a wealth of high-achieving people about their morning routine, with the idea that if you get your morning right (if you “win” it), it’s a good start to the rest of the day. His own morning rituals include making his bed and journaling; for the Gosport group, it’s more about walking, talking, stripping off, going for a quick dip, then having coffee and more chat afterwards.

In the first week, just over a year ago, 60 people turned up to join Reeves. His group has since spawned others in Surrey, Kent, Preston, Cumbria, Manchester, and Southsea, across the water in Portsmouth. There’s one in Gibraltar, he says, and another in South Africa. Two people have been in touch with Reeves this week to talk about setting up groups. It’s a little like parkrun, the 5km run that takes place in parks around the world every weekend – a simple idea, organised by enthusiastic volunteers.

Win, win … the Gosport group enjoy an early splash after a walk.
Win, win … the Gosport group enjoy an early splash after a walk. Photograph: WTMWTD

Why does Reeves think Win the Morning, Win the Day is taking off? “It’s free, I’m not selling anything and it’s a welcoming environment for anyone who wants to step outside their comfort zone,” he says. “I don’t like the sea, I don’t like cold water. But the reason I do this is because it sets me outside my comfort zone.” Challenging yourself, he believes, develops mental resilience, although the sea swim element isn’t essential. People in landlocked areas have been in touch about setting up their own groups. It’s more about getting out of bed, and meeting others.

Win the Morning, Win the Day has connected people at a time when many may have been missing contact with friends and family, and provided a space where the emphasis is on mental health and friendship, not physical fitness or tough challenges. Reeves makes it clear that nobody has to go into the sea if they don’t want to. “I have, and suffer from, poor mental health,” he says. “I know my triggers for that and I know how to look after myself. Some days are OK, some days are bad days, and that’s fine.”

Hearing about Scanlon’s group on that podcast “just triggered something and I thought: ‘I could do this.’ On that two-mile walk I’ve had deeper conversations with people I’ve never met before than with mates of 20, 30 years,” he says. “People have made friendships, some people have stopped drinking. Some people previously wouldn’t go out of the house, some people didn’t like groups. I am immensely proud, not of myself, but of everyone who has made it what it is. I’m not forcing people to be friendly, and to be nice and positive. That’s just what we’ve attracted.”

They are kind: when it’s clear that I have drastically underdressed for the weather, one member, Paul, lends me waterproofs. And by necessity, when you’re swimming outdoors in the dark, you have to look out for each other.

Meeting up early to exercise is hardly a new idea, but Win the Morning, Win the Day has a catchy name, a growing community (the Facebook group has more than 3,000 members) and an easily replicable format. Michelle Tucker set up her group in Surrey – they walk, then swim in the Thames – in October last year, after seeing Reeves on a BBC clip and getting in touch with him. “I think it’s the simplicity of it – bringing people together, meeting early, starting your day right,” she says. “People are open and honest, and share some really intimate things – they may be struggling with their mental health, with isolation, and they just talk to each other.” Or it’s simply fun and “a really liberating thing to do” to go swimming in the dark at 6am. “You kind of feel like a child again because you’re doing this funny activity. The inhibitions have gone out the window.”

There is a clear sense of accomplishment – it’s good to know you have done something healthy (the walk, the socialising, and evidence is growing for the benefits of immersion in cold water) before most people are out of bed – and the knowledge that whatever happens during the rest of the day, at least that has been achieved. But the emphasis seems to be on mental and physical wellbeing, not necessarily about optimising productivity and getting up early just to cram more into the day, which is what characterises so much early-morning fitness propaganda.

Chris Reeves: ‘It’s free, I’m not selling anything and it’s welcoming for anyone who wants to step outside their comfort zone.
Chris Reeves: ‘It’s free, I’m not selling anything and it’s welcoming for anyone who wants to step outside their comfort zone.’ Photograph: WTMWTD
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