Swimming is often hailed as one of the most complete forms of exercise, offering a full-body workout that enhances physical health – both inside and outside the body. Yet, its benefits extend far beyond just the physical.
It’s not exactly news to anybody at this point that exercise can dramatically impact our mental health, but swimming might have the edge over other forms of activity.
The Other Pandemic
There has been a rising tide of mental health problems in the UK and worldwide for decades. Mental health charity Mind now estimates that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience issues related to mental wellbeing, while 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week.
And this is not merely an adult problem. Mental health issues among children have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2022, 18.0% of children aged 7 to 16 and 22.0% of young people aged 17 to 24 had a probable mental disorder.
The problems we are facing are staggering, but as a nation, we are still struggling to address the root causes, while also often failing to provide people with suitable and viable treatments.
How Exercising Helps Mental Health
Swimming and exercising, in general, help mental health through various interconnected mechanisms, offering significant benefits to psychological well-being. Here are some key reasons exercise benefits mental health:
1. Endorphin Release – Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain. These “feel-good” neurotransmitters help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, promoting a more positive emotional state.
2. Stress Reduction – Exercise can lower the levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the body. Regular physical activity helps the body adapt to stress and improves its ability to cope with life’s challenges.
3. Improved Sleep – Engaging in regular exercise can lead to better sleep quality and patterns. Quality sleep is crucial for overall mental health, as it helps regulate mood and cognitive function.
4. Enhanced Self-Esteem – Achieving fitness goals and feeling physically stronger can boost self-esteem and self-confidence. This positive self-perception can have a ripple effect on mental well-being.
5. Social Interaction – Participating in group activities, team sports, or fitness classes fosters social interaction and a sense of belonging. Social connections are essential for mental health and can help combat feelings of isolation and loneliness.
6. Brain Health – Exercise has been linked to improved cognitive function, memory, and creativity. It can also help protect against age-related cognitive decline and reduce the risk of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
7. Neurotransmitter Regulation – Exercise can balance the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These neurotransmitters play key roles in mood regulation and can be influenced positively by physical activity.
How Swimming Specifically Helps Mental Health Issues
Feel the Rhythm
The rhythmic movements and deep breaths associated with swimming contribute to the body’s endorphin release, effectively combating stress and boosting your mood.
Swimming requires controlled breathing. This rhythmic and deliberate breathing pattern is very similar to meditation techniques, which have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety. Focusing on your breath while swimming can help you clear your mind, relieve tension, and achieve a state of relaxation.
Lowering Stress Hormones
Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that can wreak havoc on your body and mind if chronically elevated. Swimming has been shown to lower cortisol levels, helping you manage stress more effectively. A study published in the International Journal of Stress Management found that participants who engaged in regular swimming sessions experienced significant reductions in their stress hormone levels.
A Mood-Boosting Effect
Depression is a debilitating mental health condition affecting millions worldwide. While it would be a stretch to claim that swimming alone can solve depression, it has a dramatic effect. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that swimming was associated with a significant reduction in symptoms of depression. The combination of physical activity, social interaction at the pool, and the release of endorphins all contribute to this positive effect.
Anxiety is another rapidly ballooning mental health challenge. Swimming can help individuals with anxiety by promoting relaxation and reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension and increased heart rate. The calming effect of water and the rhythmic movements of swimming can be soothing for those dealing with anxiety disorders.
How to Use Swimming to Tackle Mental Health
Approaching a mental health disorder can feel like standing at the foot of Mt Everest and looking up. It’s likely that you’ll need to combine a number of different approaches and find out what works best, but when it comes to swimming, here are a few tips to get you started.
Set Realistic Goals
Start with manageable swimming sessions and gradually increase the duration and intensity as you become more comfortable. You don’t need to go to your first session with the intention of swimming 3 miles. Start small and work up from there.
Create a Routine
Consistency is key to reaping the mental health benefits of swimming. Establish a regular swimming schedule that fits into your daily life. If you’re a morning person, hit the pool early, if you’re a night owl, be one of the last in there.
While swimming, focus on your breath and the sensation of the water against your skin. This mindfulness practice can help you stay present and reduce stress. Also, try to stay present with your swimming and not let your mind wander off and start worrying about things in the future. When you are in the pool, be in the pool.
Join a Swim Group
Swimming in a group or taking lessons can provide social support, making it more enjoyable and helping combat feelings of isolation.
Mix It Up
Try different swimming strokes and exercises to keep your routine engaging and prevent boredom. If you’re a speed demon, start timing yourself over certain distances and try to beat it every time you’re in the pool.
Swimming is an excellent way to stay physically fit and a powerful tool for improving your mental health. The combination of endorphin release, stress reduction, and mood enhancement makes it a valuable addition to your mental wellness toolkit.
Whether dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, or simply seeking a healthier mind, jumping into the pool can lead to profound changes.