Go for a Swim for These 6 Mental Health Benefits
By Proteeti Sinha
Researchers have found that swimming promotes both physical and mental well-being; this isn’t news to anyone who regularly frequents the pool deck. But there are additional benefits that you may not be aware of that extend beyond the obvious. The increased blood flow strengthens the heart, increases aerobic capacity and makes our muscles stronger and more efficient. The sport of swimming itself teaches us lessons that extend far beyond the pool: teamwork, dedication, and will power to name a few. Through the sport, we find friends who will always have our backs and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Swimming regularly has a deeply positive impact on our mental health as well. It can act as an effective medicine for treating anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. The direct effect that swimming has on our brain leads to several mental health benefits, a few of which are explained below. You just might learn something new!
1. Endorphins and Serotonin
Any form of exercise, including swimming, causes the release of endorphins. Endorphins are hormones produced in the pituitary gland in response to stress or pain, kind of like a natural analgesic. These endorphins interact with receptors in our brain that reduce our perception of pain. Along with serotonin, endorphins bring about a sense of happiness, positivity and well-being. Research has also proven that regularly getting those feel-good hormones flowing (a.k.a. exercising) has deep mental health benefits and helps your body respond better to stress in general.
2. Takes Your Mind Off Things
When you swim, you have many things to keep your mind occupied: your breathing pattern, how many laps you’ve completed, and your proximity to other swimmers to avoid a collision. If you swim competitively, you also have to work on your stroke technique and speed to make your intervals. Keeping track of all of these factors means that you should have little space in your mind to think about your worries outside the pool. For a while, you get a respite from your daily concerns to focus on just swimming.
3. Breathing Regulation
The ability to regulate your breathing is an integral aspect of swimming. When you’re stressed or panicked, you tend to take in shallower and more rapid breaths. This can lead to hyperventilation and possibly morph into a panic attack. However, the breathing pattern in swimming ensures that you take in enough air that can prevent the possibility of such attacks. It is a great workout for your lungs, as it forces you to inhale and exhale evenly. This in turn can help in lowering blood pressure, eliminating toxins from the body, and assisting in relaxation.
“Swimming styles like freestyle can help to regulate your breath, as you’re forced to take long, deep breaths in order to immerse your head beneath the water while cycling through the stroke. It’s the ideal workout for people who forget to breathe properly, as it encourages you to open up your lungs and inhale and exhale evenly.” -Press Association, Irish Examiner
4. Boosts Blood Flow
A study by Carter et. al showed that just immersing yourself in water increases blood flow to the brain. This improves memory, mood, concentration and cognitive function in general. Studies have also shown that swimming can reverse brain damage from stress via hippocampal neurogenesis (i.e. creation of new neurons). A Psychology Today article details this finding.
“Of critical importance for mental health is the hippocampus—an area of the brain involved in memory, emotion regulation, and learning. Studies in other animals show convincingly that exercise leads to the creation of new hippocampal neurons (neurogenesis), with preliminary evidence suggesting this is also true in humans.” –Sarah Gingell
This means that the hippocampus can grow with exercise, increasing the brain’s oxygen supply. The nutrient supply to the brain also increases, which proves that swimming can actually effectively combat mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
5. Blue Mind Science
“Blue Mind” is a term associated with water-related calm and peace. This science tells us that as humans, we are naturally drawn to blue space. This leads to a feeling of wellness and peace when we are in or around bodies of water. As water makes up 70 percent of our bodies and covers about 75 percent of the earth’s surface, our brains have an immediate positive response when we’re near water. Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author of the best-selling book Blue Mind, says,
“Research has shown that being near, in, on or under water can provide a long list of benefits for our mind and body, including lowering stress and anxiety, increasing an overall sense of well-being and happiness, a lower heart and breathing rate, and safe, better workouts. Aquatic therapists are increasingly looking to the water to help treat and manage PTSD, addiction, anxiety disorders, autism and more.”
Moreover, just mere contact with water or hearing water flow can induce a flood of neurochemicals that make us happier, healthier and less stressed out. Is it time for a beach day?
6. Mental Well-Being and Stress Relief
While we swim, almost all of the senses are engaged: sight, sound, touch and smell. It is one of the rare distractions from technology. In addition, the “screenless” atmosphere alleviates stress and encourages relaxation and creativity. Also, the feeling of water moving over our body creates a massage-like sensation. In short, swimming helps us release pent-up tension and also makes us more mindful of our surroundings.
How does swimming help your mental health?
-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff. All research was conducted by the author.