Swimming for Brain Health: Why a Biochemist Suggests It

This summer, there are lots of reasons to get in the pool. To stay cool, to complete a few laps, and so on. Swimming is a superior activity for your brain health and longevity, according to Seena Mathew, PhD, a neurobiologist and assistant professor of biology at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

To begin with, swimming, like virtually all other forms of cardiovascular exercise, releases endorphins in the brain. “And it makes you feel better,” Dr. Mathew explains. “That’s why swimming causes a change in depression and anxiety, and individuals don’t see those symptoms as much over time.” Swimming, however, differs from other aerobic sports such as jogging and spinning in that it has been linked to increased levels of brain chemicals linked to memory and cognition.

When I ask Dr. Mathew for a 101 on what happens biologically while swimming, she explains that studies has shown that the exercise produces a growth protein and peptide called brain derived neurotrophic factor in your brain (or, BDNF for short). “It’s been discovered that people with memory problems and cognitive decline have lower levels of BDNF, and swimming has been shown to help increase those levels,” she explains. “This aids memory and cognition, so your memory improves or stays the same as you age rather than deteriorating.”

The truth is, we have no idea why all of this occurs in your brain; all we know is that it does. “Researchers don’t yet know what swimming’s secret sauce might be, but they’re coming closer to understanding it,” Dr. Mathew wrote in a recent, widely cited publication. Much of the research on the subject has been done on rats, but a 2019 study of 18 adult swimmers discovered that 20 minutes of swimming at a moderate pace helped to increase brain function, suggesting that swimming for brain health may be the real deal, which we may start to test with more research.

Dr. Mathew hypothesises that it has something to do with the calming effects of water on the brain. “Some of it could be because you’re already in a different mental state when you enter the water, so you’re getting into a meditative pattern,” she explains. Though you may achieve a similar meditative state when running or cycling, research shows that it’s more prevalent in the water because “you can kind of block out all the sounds, so it’s just your breath and the water,” according to Dr. Mathew.

Swimming makes use of your complete body, in addition to environmental considerations. “I believe another important factor is that when you swim, your entire body is working,” she adds. “When you run, you’re still working your cardiovascular system, but when you swim, you’re getting that added degree of resistance from the water, so you’re working your entire body more than you would with other aerobic sports.”

Consider this a sign if you’ve been looking for an excuse to go pool hopping this summer.

Hello everyone! You appear to be someone who enjoys free workouts, unique Well+Good content, and savings on cutting-edge wellness brands. Sign up for Well+, our online network of wellness insiders, and you’ll have quick access to your rewards.

Leave a Comment