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The benefits of swimming for your brain

We’ve long known that swimming is an excellent cardiovascular exercise that strengthens your heart and circulatory system. But it also really benefits your brain and mental health. It helps the brain to release mood-boosting brain chemicals. repair damage to brain cells and grow brain cells.

Your brain is where your thoughts and emotions live, and a healthy brain contributes greatly to good mental health. Swimming can help lower anxiety and depression. It provides extra benefits for the brain as the aerobic action affects brain chemical that influence mood and stress-reducing hormones.

Swimming, like all exercise releases endorphins in the brain.

Endorphins are naturally produced chemicals, ‘feel-good’ hormones that increase the sense of positivity and well-being in the body. They help to manage stress, anxiety and overall mood. Recent research has shown that swimming can have an anti-depressant effect, reducing depressive symptoms with a positive impact on those struggling with depression.

If you swim with a group, this has additional mental health benefits. Swimming with a group is typically a social affair. Having and making friends with similar interests can be a strong antidote to loneliness, a condition that is of epidemic proportions. Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and the problem is particularly pronounced among older adults.

But exercise, especially when it’s performed in the context of a supportive peer group, can provide a needed physical and mental boost that could alleviate loneliness and pay long-term health benefits

Swimming promotes the growth of new brain cells

One of the most important discoveries within the past decade or so is the connection between exercise and the growth of new brain cells. Short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF is a protein generated in your brain that can help repair cells and support the growth of new ones.

Research has shown that we can generate new brain cells as adults. But we have to work at it. And swimming is a really good type of exercise for promoting BDNF and the growth of new brain cells. 

Swimming improves brain function and also helps repair damaged brain cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain primarily responsible for memory and learning). There are various reasons why you might lose brain cells in the hippocampus. They may be lost or damaged due to age, but there are also other reasons, such as excessive alcohol consumption or stress.

Brain damage from stress can be reversed with swimming by promoting the growth of new brain cells or replacing lost ones in the hippocampus

Swimming helps your brain to manufacture more BDNF than exists in the brains of people who are sedentary.  Several studies have shown an association between swimming as exercise and increased levels of BDNF in your brain. These higher levels can have wide-ranging, positive effects on cognition, memory, and mood regulation, all functions of a healthy brain that’s ageing well.

Swimming improves learning and memory

Swimming encourages the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus. As we’ve seen, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that supports memory retention and learning. The number of neurons in the hippocampus region of the brain increase dramatically after swimming for just 30 days. The hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with making and being able to recall memories. As swimming is shown to increase the neuron growth and repair in hippocampus region, it is a vital activity to help improve memory

Swimming is also one of the most important skills that a child can learn. Research suggests learning to swim at an early age promotes better physical, cognitive, and language development. Children who learn to swim at an early age reach many developmental milestones earlier than those who do not learn to swim.

Swimming helps you sleep Better

Any form of exercise can improve sleep, but there’s just something about swimming that makes it a great way to improve sleep quality. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s a full-body workout that targets your core as well as your arms and legs. Perhaps it’s the submersion in water cooler than your body temperature that makes you want to cuddle up and snooze afterwards. Or maybe it’s just the heart-pounding workout you can get during a swimming workout.

Whatever it is, swimming helps you sleep better. And that’s really important for brain health because it’s during sleep that your brain effectively takes out its rubbish.

During sleep, cerebrospinal fluid—the fluid that runs through the brain and spinal cord—washes in and out of your brain like waves on the ocean. This helps your brain get rid of metabolic waste generated by hard-working cells. Effectively, this fluid wash acts as the brain’s dustmen, taking out the trash, leaving your brain in optimal state to go to work the next day.

If you don’t get sufficient slow-wave sleep (deep sleep), over years and decades, your brain gradually builds piles of residual metabolic waste, including the toxic proteins that lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Swimming can help to clear away the metabolic waste that builds up in your brain and leads to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cold water swimming also seems to protect your brain against degenerative diseases such as dementia. A recent study found that a ‘cold-shock’ protein was present in the blood of regular users of London’s Parliament Hill Lido, the presence of which has been shown to slow the onset of dementia.

There are currently more than a million people with dementia in the UK, with this total expected to double by 2050. And current treatment options have only limited impact. The ‘cold-shock’ protein, called RBM3, is believed to help slow – and possible even partially reverse ­– the progress of some neurodegenerative diseases.

Cold-water swimmers at London’s Parliament Hill Lido volunteered themselves to be test subjects in a study during the winters of 2016-2018, during which they were regularly tested for the RBM3 protein.

 

For comparison, the researchers used members of a Tai Chi Club, who practise beside the pool but never actually get in. The study found that a significant number of the swimmers had elevated levels of RBM3, whereas none of the Tai Chi group’s levels increased. So cold water swimming might provide some protection against dementia.

There are lots of brain and mental health benefits to swimming that we’re only beginning to truly understand. But more than anything swimming indoors or outdoors is good for your wellbeing. When you are immersed in the water, feeling the water on your skin, your brain is building new brain cells and repairing damaged ones, and all your worries seem to drift away.

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