Every four years, swimming received increased attention as a result of the Olympic games. This summer, the U.S. Olympic Swim Team made a big splash in the pool, winning 30 medals as millions of viewers cheered them on. As a sport and recreational activity, swimming is undervalued, and typically, once the Olympic flame is extinguished, so is the interest in the sport. This is unfortunate, as research shows recreational swimming offers many cognitive health benefits.
Recent studies show that swimming can improve brain health, enhance longevity, and alleviate depression by affecting neurotransmitters that influence mood and stress-reducing hormones. According to Seena Mathew, Ph.D., a neurobiologist and assistant professor of biology at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, swimming is an outstanding exercise for brain health and longevity because, like all aerobic exercise, it releases endorphins in the brain. In fact, researchers are finding it superior to other forms of aerobic workouts because it boosts the brain chemicals associated with memory and cognition.1
Abundant research has shown that exercise reprograms the brain by releasing a peptide called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which aids in memory and cognition. Patients experiencing memory impairments and cognitive decline are often deficient in BDNF. Studies show that swimming, in particular, increases levels of BDNF and can fend off the memory decline associated with aging. While researchers aren’t exactly clear on swimming’s secret sauce, they are getting closer to understanding it.
One recent study specifically examined the effects of swimming on cognitive function.2 The research showed the benefit may be associated with the exercise-related increase in cerebral blood flow, aided by water immersion. Immersion itself results in a number of cardiorespiratory effects. A second study reaffirmed that full immersion in a pool (up to the level of the heart) increases blood flow to the brain. Participants experienced a 14 percent increase in blood flow to their middle cerebral arteries, and a 9 percent increase to their posterior cerebral arteries, compared to on land.3 This boost in blood flow can help improve mood, clarity, and focus, and even counter some depressive symptoms.
While research is ongoing, copious evidence points to the benefits of swimming. In addition to boosting peptides and blood flow, the positive results may relate to the calming effects that water has on the brain, as well as the meditative, rhythmic aspects of the sport. So, while you likely won’t become an Olympic swimmer, if you’re looking to boost both your mood and your brain power, consider taking a dip in the pool. The fountain of youth may be at the local community center or even in your own backyard.
By Zach Meeker, Research Assistant from Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush
1Weiner, Zoe. I’m a Neurobiologist, and This Is the Exercise I Recommend for Brain Health and Longevity. Well + Good 08.11.2021. Experts referenced: Seena Mathew, Ph.D.
2Shoemaker LN, Wilson LC, Lucas SJE, Machado L, Thomas KN, Cotter JD. Swimming-related effects on cerebrovascular and cognitive function. Physiol Rep. 2019;7(20): e14247. doi:10.14814/phy2.14247
3Carter HH, Spence AL, Pugh CJ, Ainslie P, Naylor LH, Green DJ. Cardiovascular responses to water immersion in humans: impact on cerebral perfusion. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2014 May;306(9): R636-40. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00516.2013. Epub 2014 Feb 19. PMID: 24553298; PMCID: PMC4010659.
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