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by Elaine K Howley

January 6, 2021

Swimming more might just make you a little smarter

We’ve long known that swimming is an excellent cardiovascular exercise that strengthens your heart and circulatory system in far-reaching ways.

Those benefits, it seems, can reach the top of your head.

A common phrase repeated among cardiologists and neurologists is, “What’s good for the body is good for the brain too.” Right in step with this, it’s clear that swimming is good for your heart as well as your brain.

Brain benefits are both structural—helping the brain repair damage to cells and grow new cells—as well as functional. Both elements contribute to a brain that functions more  optimally. 

Here are some of the top reasons swimming is so good for your brain.

It Supports Good Mental Health

Your brain is where your cognition and emotions live, and a healthy brain contributes greatly to good mental health. Swimming can help support this pursuit by lowering anxiety and depression

Swimming with a group, such as your local Masters club, is typically a social affair. Having and making friends with similar interests can be a strong antidote to loneliness, a condition the Health Resources and Services Administration calls an “epidemic.” According to that governmental agency’s website, “Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to 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.

It Generates BDNF

One of the more blockbuster discoveries within the past decade or so of research into the connection between exercise and brain health was BDNF. 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.

Long gone is the idea that we’re born with all the brain cells we’ll ever possess. It turns out that humans can generate new ones as adults. But it seems we have to work at it.

The science is still evolving, but it appears that BDNF supports the maintenance of cells in your brain and can be generated during vigorous physical activity. 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.”

It also appears that exercise—and perhaps swimming in particular—can help your brain manufacture more of this special brew than exists in the brains of sedentary folks. Several studies in animals 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 aging well.

It Supports Cognitive Function and Development

In addition, it’s been shown (in at least one report released by researchers at Griffith University in Australia) that kids who learn to swim younger reach cognitive developmental milestones faster—by as much as 10 months in some cases. That’s no small feat and underscores just how important swimming can be to supporting good brain health.

Although adults don’t necessarily have specific milestones to achieve quite like kids do, we tend to lose cognitive function as we age, but exercise can slow the rate at which these changes occur. According to research findings presented at the 2020 American Academy of Neurology annual meeting, researchers at Columbia University found that activities including walking, gardening, swimming, and dancing could prevent brain shrinkage in older adults. Brain shrinkage is associated with reduced cognitive function, and adults who were more active had larger brain volumes than their sedentary peers.

Increasingly, science is showing that cognitive decline is not an inevitable aspect of getting older. Turns out, the folks who work the hardest at eating right, keeping a strong social network, and engaging in regular physical activity seem to fare best when it comes to cognitive performance—and possibly fending off dementia—later in life.

It Helps You Sleep Better

Lastly, 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 with racing lanemates during an interval 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 garbage.

A 2019 study conducted at Boston University found that 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 municipal garbage collectors, leaving your brain sparkling clean come morning.

If you don’t get enough or high-enough quality sleep, it appears your body can’t fully perform this important maintenance function, resulting in a buildup of waste that can really bring down the neighborhood (i.e., a less optimally functioning brain). Research is continuing into exactly how this all works, but it seems getting a good night’s sleep is really important for brain health. And swimming can help you get that rest your brain so desperately needs.

It Improves Circulation

As with the cerebrospinal fluid wash that can help clear the roadways of your brain of waste, improved blood flow to your brain can also support better brain health. Your circulatory system transports oxygen and nutrients to cells that need these critical elements to function. It also helps carry away waste products, which can improve the overall function of your brain.

Exercise can boost this process. With swimming, that improvement comes not just from the elevated heart rate that cardiovascular exercise can provide, but also from the pressure of the water that helps support your body and can gently push the blood along on its journey.


  • Health and Nutrition