Wellness Wednesday: The Positive Effects of Swimming On the Brain

Marrit Steenbergen of The Netherlands celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 100m Individual Medley Women Final during the FINA Swimming Short Course World Championships at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre in Melbourne, Australia, December 16th, 2022. Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

The Positive Effects of Swimming On the Brain

By Alice Reeves-Turner

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 an endorphin which reduces the perception of pain by interacting with the opiate receptors in the brain. This relationship acts in a 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 sense 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 in its 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.

First, 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 than drugs such as Prozac in helping those with depression get relief from their symptoms.

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.

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 uses 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, and 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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2 years ago

Hi! I thought that this article was extremely useful. Thank you.

2 years ago

I love swimming and often swim 14-20 hours per week doing it, but I have begun to gain weight and have more aches and pains. I am 68 and am wondering if I need to cut back. I really think I am addicted as I keep pushing myself further even when I know I should cut back and get some rest.

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