Ever wonder why a simple dip in the pool can make you feel so good? How your mind feels refreshed after a swimming lesson? How does swimming affect your mental health? Research has shown a strong correlation between exercise and mental health, but just how does it work? We will dive into the world of neuroscience to uncover how swimming not only makes our bodies, but also our brains, feel good.
Swimming and Mental Health – The Science
Researchers have been discovering the benefits of exercise on mental health for years. Studies continuously find that elevation of mood and cognition, decreased depression, stress and anxiety are just a few of the benefits. In particular, exercise for even just 20-40 minutes has been shown to improve mood and anxiety for several hours! What is going on here?
The Runners High Hypothesis
There are a few hypotheses researchers have come up with to explain this natural phenomenon. First, increased endorphins, known as the “runners high” come into play. Endorphins are essentially the body’s natural painkillers and help the body cope with prolonged pain or stress. The runners high shows activation of these endorphins and creates a sense of euphoria when performing intense activity, such as swimming. While it is not definitively known why this happens, what we do know is that runners high makes us feel great!
The Neurotransmitter Hypothesis
There’s also the neurotransmitter hypothesis. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that impacts mood, sleep, and appetite. A serotonin imbalance is one of the key players in depression, and is most commonly treated with medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Studies have shown that exercise acts in many ways similar to the drug, by increasing levels of serotonin and improving depressive symptoms. In other words, swimming can work the same way as anti-depressants!
The HPA Axis Hypothesis
Finally, there’s the HPA axis hypothesis. The hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) is important for regulating your body’s natural stress response. Simply put, when your body is experiencing uncontrollable stress, anxiety or depression, the axis is continuously releasing a chemical known as cortisol, which is what makes us feel tense, anxious and stressed, among other biological effects. Exercise can actually slow down the HPA’s reaction to stress, making us feel a whole lot better!
Swimming and Dementia
A major finding for researchers has also been the link between exercise and dementia. A lot of research has gone into discovering what effect exercise could have on cognition and mental capacity. Studies involving at-risk individuals for Alzheimer’s disease have shown that regular exercise may have a protective effect on cognition. Exercise may even decrease the risk for developing the disease! This research shows that exercise not only has a positive effect on our immediate mental health, but also on our cognitive abilities later on in life.
So, what does this all mean? Exercise is extremely important for both our physical and mental health. Participating in regular exercise can help us live long, healthy lives and even protect us and reduce the risk of future mental illness! So, slap on some sunscreen, grab your suits and towels, and jump on in the pool! Your brain will thank you for it.