Swimming’s Effect On the Brain

Jul 14, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Michelle Williams of Canada adjusts her goggles before the women's 100m freestyle swimming preliminaries during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports Images

By Alice Reeves-Turner, Swimming World College Intern.

If there is one thing all swimmers (and ex-swimmers) can agree on it is the addictive nature of swimming. We all crave the smell of chlorine on our skin, the pain of a long, hard set and the adrenaline rush that comes from every race regardless of its result. The fact that so many find it so hard to hang up the goggles is proof enough of this addiction, however very few know why we feel this way. The answer is in science and hormones.

Endorphins, the hormone which quite simply makes us feel happiness and is ‘nature’s high’, are the key reason why swimming is so addictive; swimmers have an extraordinarily high number of endorphins running through their body after training and racing. When exercise is performed the brain releases a chemical called endorphin which reduces perception of pain through interacting with the opiate receptors in the brain acting in similar manner to narcotics such as morphine and codeine

As a side effect of this reaction, a positive feeling is felt by the individual, this is often known as a ‘runner’s high’. A runner’s high is a feeling of relaxed euphoria felt after doing exercise and has recently been found to have a similar effect to the addictive nature of marijuana. So to put it bluntly, swimming is like an addictive drug in its ability to get us hooked.

Although like a drug it is addictive nature, the endorphins released by swimming are by no means negative. In fact, they have been found to have numerous positive effects on the body.

Firstly, swimming has been found to be an effective treatment in helping those with depression due to the rise in endorphins that comes about from a hard swim session. In animal experiments, exercise has been shown to be even more helpful in helping those with depression in relief go their symptoms than drugs such as Prozac.

There is so much evidence to suggest the benefits of swimming on mental health that sports psychologists, such as Aimee C. Kimball, support swimming as a form of treatment in addition to other methods. Swimming has also been shown to aid the body in removing excess fight-or-flight stress hormones, converting stress within the body into muscle relaxation. This conversion makes the stressed individual feel relaxed.

(140818) -- Nanjing,Aug 18,2014 (Xinhua) -- An athlete warms up ahead of match during Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, on Aug. 18, 2014. (Xinhua/Fei Maohua)(zc)

Photo Courtesy: Xinhua/Fei Maohua

Swimming a tough set can even promote “hippocampal neurogenesis” , the growth of new brain cells in a part of the brain that is destroyed by chronic stress and depression. Through participation in sport, patients are able to recover from the effects of depression, making recovery more likely and as well as reducing the chances of relapse.

Additionally this creation of new brain cells (which would have previously been destroyed by depression), means that the individual who takes part in swimming will have a better memory and stronger ability to learn new information. So quite simply, as well as making you feel happy, swimming can also make you more intelligent.

A further educational benefit that comes from swimming is due to the movements which a swimmer has to complete in order to swim each stroke legally. A swimmer’s nerve fibers in the corpus callosum, the part of the brain which allows communication between both sides, are aided in development by the precision in stoke and the way in which bilateral cross-patterning movements are used in order to swim.

This increase in the communication of the two sides of the brain means that cognition is increased and learning is made easier. Numerous cognition studies have been conducted– some found that children who learn to swim earlier will also be more likely to reach educational milestones at earlier points compared to children who learn to swim later.

To add to this, blood flow to the brain has been found to increase when an individual is emerged in water. A study conducted in 2014 showed a 14 percent increase in blood flow. This increase in blood flow acts with endorphins as a mood booster (again suggesting swimming as a treatment for depression), but also sharpens focus allowing individuals to perform better educationally.

Swimmers can testify to the many physical health benefits of swimming, however very few of us think of how it helps our mental state. So the next time you feel that high that comes following training, or wonder why you can never seem to keep away from the pool, thank the chemicals and hormones within your brain that prove yet again how beneficial swimming really is!

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 discovered by the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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  1. Eric Valley

    Especially the corkscrew stroke at end of season relays!

  2. Janice Wilson

    So true on every account and it got me through one of the worst times in life.

  3. Carol Gorden

    Enjoyed this article. I LOVE swimming at Sea Colony but I miss my friends at SPY and Big Vanilla.

  4. Beata Nowak

    Kaya Nowak Kamila Nowak

  5. Michele Davis Madden

    Anne Coley Thomas Jocelyn… I knew I was missing something! Ugh…i need a kick in the ass

  6. Jane Hargrave McMahon

    Why swimming is more than just a sport. It’s a way of life. A healthy life. Read on…

  7. Sammy Lee

    My cardio Aydan Cervantes

  8. Daniel Gan

    Aqmal Azmi no wonder 😂😂😂😂

    • Cheryl Wesley

      Wow! No wonder we are so smart!!! 🤣 Seriously, so happy I got back into swimming after so long. I ❤️ it!! 🏊‍♀️🏊‍♀️🏊‍♀️ Thanks for sharing!

  9. Brett Davies

    Great article for me swimming has become a way of life and has a lot of healthy side benefits. Keeps my weight and blood pressure down lowers my cholesterol levels
    and reduced my body fat levels.

  10. avatar

    Who write this?

  11. Shelby Knop

    Alyssa this is why we should start swimming again

    • Alyssa Axe

      At least next semester! Linnea Larson can come too!

  12. Paula Manns

    Kenyon Kellett Devin Kellett

  13. Brid Browne

    Poshey Aherne interesting read

  14. Angie Calvert

    Patrick Williams Kasey Berry Chamblee

  15. Silvia Oconi

    Erika Carvajal Evelyn Juárez

  16. Linda Hyslop

    Great article. Long have touted the benefits of swimming at every age.

  17. Megan Maloney

    Crissy Perham! once a swimmer always a swimmer! Miss you girl!

  18. Brid Browne

    Rosemary Collins what i was telling you about

  19. Irene Hisham

    yeah….so true…my children’s only escape….Edwina Ed….Edrin Rafael Walcott…Sis Zabrina

    • Jacky Lei

      my swimming class is harder than 10k on the erg, im dying :/

    • Jacky Lei

      more like getting killed lol

    • Sarah Moasser

      10k on the erg is still easier than running

  20. Mary Roberts

    Great article Tim! I love to swim m!

  21. Shen Zhi

    Wei Mei suddenly think dao you 😆😆

  22. Nyrie Simpson

    Chloe Palmer-Simpson ✔️👍

    • Chloe Palmer-Simpson

      I quite like that article! Maybe we should put that to icare and show that swimming actually does aide with rehabilitation!!! 🤣🤣 xx

  23. Johanna Kaschke

    Thanks for this great article, I link to your site on my own and quote this article as the best motivational tool to get more people swimming

  24. avatar
    Stephanie Vogel

    I wanted to pin it but it doesn’t have a pinterest icon. could you email this article. I am an avid swimmer and wanted to send this to a friend. I could also print it out.

  25. avatar

    Good article! Have to admit I always felt mentally and physically better after repetitive lap workouts, even better sleep, than when I switched to a metabolic Hitt type of workout ending in long suffering sciatica issues for several months. Back to the pool!

  26. avatar

    It’s the only reason that people do triathlons, because of the swim at the start! 😀

  27. avatar
    Jerry Kegelman

    It’s intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that swimming improves IQ. My four sons have excelled both at swimming and in life. They are all pretty “smucking fart” as I’ve always said.

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