Article image

by Elaine K Howley

January 6, 2021

Swimming offers mental health benefits that go well beyond just a relaxing dip in the pool

If you’ve ever felt refreshed, relaxed. and ready to tackle the day after a swim, you’re not alone.

A 2012 survey of nearly 1,200 swimmers aged 16 to 45 around the world conducted by swimwear manufacturer Speedo investigated how swimmers felt about their sport. According to the survey:

  • 74 percent of respondents said swimming helps release stress and tension.
  • 68 percent of respondents said being in the water helps them feel good about themselves.
  • 70 percent of respondents said swimming helps them feel mentally refreshed.

But there’s more to these findings than just a self-reported sense of relaxation or calm. Indeed, science is beginning to unravel some of the mental health benefits of swimming, and some researchers are investigating whether swimming could eventually become an actual treatment protocol for depression and anxiety.

Take, for example, a recent case study published in British Medical Journal Case Reports about a 24-year-old British woman named Sarah who has major depressive disorder and anxiety. Medications made her feel “off” and groggy, so with the encouragement and supervision of Chris van Tulleken at the University College London, Sarah began exploring cold water swimming as a form of hydrotherapy.

After the first session, Sarah noted symptom improvement, and over the next several weeks, she continued swimming regularly in open water. Before long, she was able to taper off her medications and two years later she was still drug-free and managing well with her swimming-as-medicine protocol.

Although investigation is still ongoing as to whether pool swimming can offer the same benefits as open water swimming, the fact remains that humans want to be close to water.

In his bestselling 2014 book “Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do,” Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist, detailed the psychological effect being in or near water can have. In short, he wrote that water soothes the human psyche and provides cognitive and emotional benefits that may be difficult to quantify exactly but are nevertheless very real.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the U.K. are continuing to investigate exactly how water helps boost mental health and recently found that something as simple as watching a video of the ocean while exercising on a stationary bicycle might elevate your mood. It seems logical then to suggest that swimmers who get their workout in the water are cutting right to the chase on this benefit.

But why and how can some people find such powerful benefits from swimming? Here’s what we know so far about how swimming supports good mental health.

A Boost in “Feel-Good” Brain Chemicals

Exercise boosts production of beneficial chemicals in the brain and body that can significantly alter how you feel. Endorphins, in particular, are a group of hormones in the brain and nervous system that stimulate cells’ opiate receptors, which can cause an analgesic, or painkilling, effect. That’s right—runner’s (or in this case swimmer’s) high is your body’s own built-in painkiller.

In addition, swimming seems especially adept at influencing mood by increasing the number of certain neurotransmitters in your brain, namely serotonin, noradrenalin, and dopamine. These “feel-good” brain chemicals are boosted by vigorous physical activity and also increase steroid reserves, which allows you to become more resilient to stress.

A Boost in Brain Cells

In addition to hormones and brain chemicals that can help you better regulate mood, aerobic exercise has also been shown to increase the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein in your brain and spinal cord that promotes the survival, growth, and maintenance of neurons. John Ratey, a Harvard psychiatrist and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” has described BDNF as being like “Miracle-Gro for your brain.”

Exercise, and swimming specifically, helps your brain increase its levels of BDNF. A number of studies in animals—rats and fish, specifically—have shown a clear correlation between swimming as exercise and increased levels of BDNF in your brain. These higher levels can have wide-ranging effects on cognition, memory, and mood regulation.

Boosting BDNF levels via exercise is also being investigated as a potential means of preventing or slowing the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and age-related cognitive decline, all of which have depression as a symptom.

A Boost in Social Contact

For many swimmers, there’s a very important social element to swimming as well. Humans are an innately social species, and interacting with friends and loved ones is a key means of combating loneliness. Social contact is also being investigated as a means of combating age-related cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, and a host of other brain-based problems.

What’s more, swimming with a group, such as a Masters club, builds in accountability that can make sticking to your training regimen a little easier and more enjoyable.

A Boost In Sleep Quality

Sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your overall health and wellness every day. But according to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, stress may interfere with sleep. That 2013 survey found that on average, American adults report sleeping 6.7 hours per night, which is less than the minimum recommendation of seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

“In addition, 42 percent of adults report that their sleep quality is fair or poor, and 43 percent report that stress has caused them to lie awake at night in the past month,” the APA noted. Adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night reported having higher stress levels and symptoms of stress in the preceding month.

But one of exercise’s most amazing benefits is how it can help you get better rest at night. Exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer, according to an article on Johns Hopkins Medicine’s website.

It’s not entirely understood exactly how exercise boosts sleep quality, but “moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow wave sleep you get. Slow-wave sleep refers to deep sleep, during which the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate. Exercise can also help to stabilize your mood and decompress the mind,” both of which can help make you feel more ready for sleep when the time comes to go to bed, Charlene Gamaldo, medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at the Howard County General Hospital, is quoted as saying in the article.

Swimming is a great way to increase your body’s capacity for high-quality sleep, which in turn can help you feel less stressed out. When you work hard during the day and expend a lot of energy, naturally you’ll probably feel more tired later than if you just sat around all day.

And we’re not talking about hours on end of exercise, either. The Johns Hopkins Medicine article notes that “people who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may see a difference in sleep quality that same night.”

Bottom line: When you exercise more, you sleep better, and that can help alleviate stress and anxiety.


  • Health and Nutrition