The Power of Swimming On Mental Health


The Power of Swimming On Mental Health

By Mark Welte

May, just a few days away, is Mental Health Awareness Month, and while that means different things to different people, we can probably all agree that information leading to more resilient, vibrant, open, and good-humored states of mind is a good thing.

Sports in general help keep the mind young, fresh, and alert, and swimming is no exception. TV legend Mister Rogers swam daily, and was in possession of a sterling outlook on life. Actors like David Duchovny and Julia Roberts swim regularly for both physical and mental fitness. Many open water swimmers consider their time in the lane-free waters as being ‘healing,’ helping to diminish whatever mental goblins they may be carrying around. We know it’s aerobic (√), it uses all the muscles (√), anyone can do it (√), and it’s cardiovascular (√).

Mimi Winsberg

Photo Courtesy: Mimi Winsberg

Athlete, psychiatrist, and Chief Medical Officer of Brightside Health, Dr. Mimi Winsberg, told me that while exercise in general stimulates the BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) — key ingredients in the health and growth of brain cells — swimming may actually outperform other forms of exercise.

“Swimming may be particularly good for our brains,” Winsberg wrote in an email. “In addition to enhancing sleep length and quality, it also seems to boost mood, reduce anxiety, and improve cognitive function. Animal studies have shown that swimming exerts these positive effects on mood both by stimulating the growth of new brain cells, and the neurochemicals they produce.”

Winsberg also noted that, in his book “Blue Mind,” Dr. Wallace Nichols outlines the mental health benefits of simply being on, in or under water. According to Winsberg, he argues that mere proximity to water can contribute to a sense of calm, and reduce anxiety.

Indeed, meditation apps and videos found online most often use water-centric sounds as an ambient foundation for more peaceful and deeper relaxations.

Swimmers often mention becoming mesmerized by the repetition of their stroke, and even entering a “meditative-like state” during their workouts, which helps reduce anxiety and the chorus of maladies that accompany it.

Swimming with a Masters club or other group also helps satisfy our very basic human need for social contact. Group activity — even when pursued in the context of an individual sport — helps reduce age-related cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, and related brain-based problems. Not to mention the accountability factor! During Covid, when my swim club was closed and the air temperature and water temperature didn’t add up to 100F, the only reason I was out swimming for 25+ minutes, 5x/week, was because of peer pressure! Yet, it was that tribulation and camaraderie that helped us all through the winter, helping us not only to exercise but to feel mentally bright, ‘morally resilient,’ and charged with vitality.

Swimming is a virtuous cycle, then, in which one strokes their way to better daily living, for longer sustained periods of time and life. Factor in the low risk of injury, and the swimmer can look forward to a more mentally-positive outlook from the day they begin, unto eternity.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Colin Campbell
Colin Campbell
11 months ago

Maybe swimming is a return to our evolutionary roots. It’s where we belong. I’m a fan of Elaine Morgan’s THE AQUATIC APE, which demonstrates that such things as our hairlessness and our breath control (which led to the ability to speak) evolved from apes who lived by the beach and made their living in the water.

Any kind of exercise is health-beneficial. I haven’t been in the water in decades but I bicycle eight miles a day. It’s not as good as walking and swimming, our evolutionary sweet spots, but it’s better than couch surfing.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x