Three Reasons Why Swimming Is Good for Your Mental Health
Being Around the Water Makes Us Feel Better.
Our relationship with water is the subject of the bestselling book, Blue Mind: The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. Written by marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, the book is the result of his research showing that there are scientifically proven benefits on our mental and emotional health to being around water. Simply put: being close to the water makes us feel calmer and happier. Regular exposure to water helps us to sustain those positive feelings. Nichols’ book focuses on natural bodies of water likes lakes and oceans, and he recommends gearing travel around opportunities to connect with water. However, as he points out in an interview with USA Today, the blue mind concept isn’t about natural bodies of water, it’s about water itself.
What this means is that the physical and mental benefits of swimming start before we even enter the water. “Research has shown that being near, in, on or under water can provide a long list of benefits for our mind and body, including lowering stress and anxiety, increasing an overall sense of well-being and happiness, a lower heart and breathing rate, and safe, better workouts.” In fact, according to Nichols, there has been an increase in Aquatic therapies to help treat a number of mental problems, including PTSD, addiction, anxiety disorders, and autism.
Anecdotal evidence on this issue consistently points to an association between calmness and the color blue. However, there is scientific evidence emerging to support what we already intuitively know just by how being around water makes us feel.
Being in the Water Increases Blood Flow to the Brain.
In the results of a study published at PubMed.gov at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, scientists Howard H. Carter et.al. concluded that being immersed in water causes more blood to flow to the brain. That increased blood flow not only helps us to think and remember better, it also makes us feel better.
Studies conducted in recent years in rats have shown that this may be because swimming can actually reverse stress-related brain damage by creating new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for memory, regulating emotions, and learning. When we exercise, our hippocampus actually grows, which means that our brain gets more oxygen. The increased blood supply to the brain also delivers more nutrients. While research in this area has not yet progressed to humans, there is ample anecdotal evidence from people who swim regularly which suggests that this physiological process may be the reason why swimming makes us feel better mentally.
A further point for consideration is that a scientific study conducted by the Griffith Institute for Educational Research concluded that children who can swim hit cognitive developmental milestones like oral expression, literacy, the ability to use and process numbers, and visual-motor skills faster than those who don’t. This suggests that swimming may not only make us happier, it just may also make us smarter.
Swimming Keeps Us Anchored in the Moment.
Swimming requires us to regulate the way that we are breathing. When we learn to breathe properly as part of stroke technique, we are also learning to breathe deeply and evenly. There are proven health benefits to this, including lowering blood pressure, flushing toxins from the body, and relaxation. But these physiological benefits have profound implications on our mental health, too. In fact, they are the exact opposite of what it feels like to experience anxiety.
Anxiety can be characterized by shallow, irregular breathing and a tendency to focus on our thoughts. In the case of anxiety, our thoughts are typically fixated on something from the past or on something which hasn’t happened yet and may never happen. Swimming, though, engages most of our senses all at the same time, making it harder to retreat into our minds. We can see, hear, and smell the water which, as explained above, has a calming effect in and of itself. We can also feel the water over every inch of our body. Further, there are many real-time things for us to focus on while swimming, like our stroke technique, our breathing, counting laps, or just the requirements of navigating the traffic of other swimmers if we are in a public pool. In short, with its unique combination of regulated breathing and mindfulness, swimming can be a form of meditation.
Mental health problems afflict one in four people during any given year, most commonly anxiety and depression. While the causes of these issues can be complex, and are unique to each individual, there is ample evidence to suggest that swimming regularly has an edge over other forms of exercise when it comes to increasing overall mental health and a positive sense of wellbeing.
I enjoy every opportunity I get to coach, whether it is a national level university swimming team or a kid who just started exploring one of the greatest sports - swimming.