Saturday, April 1

Why swimming is so good for taking care of the brain

Swimming is not only a super complete exercise on a physical level: several investigations show that it is ideal to protect and enhance the capacities of our brain

Jose A. Morales Garcia

JOSE A. MORALES GARCIA Professor and scientific researcher in Neuroscience, Complutense University of Madrid

It is no news that exercise is beneficial for our brain. It complies with a basic principle: what is good for our heart is good for our nervous system. But is there any physical activity that has more advantages than another?

There are many reasons to go to the pool, a lake or the sea this summer: to make the heat more bearable, to spend a pleasant time, to exercise our muscles, etc. But the best of all is that swimming is one of the most complete exercises to improve our physical and mental health.

And to convince you to continue reading this article, we are going to reveal a secret. The expression “fountain of eternal youth” could be literal. And the key is in the water.

Here’s a preview. Swimming promotes the release of substances in the brain that improve cognition and memory, thanks in part to helping to establish new brain connections. It helps our body fight against oxidative stress and free radicals, reduces stress levels and improves our immune system. Together, it improves mood.

Let’s start swimming.

First of all, the physical benefits of swimming are undeniable. It is a very complete exercise that activates the main muscle groups of the body. In addition to stimulating the cardiovascular system, the work done is much greater than in other activities, thanks to the resistance of the water. Another advantage is that the body, being submerged, receives less physical impact, and it is easier to move.

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But physical fitness is just as important as mental health.

endorphin rush

As a good aerobic exercise – that which requires an effort from the heart and lungs to provide oxygen to the muscles – swimming produces the release of endorphins.

These substances are the natural drug of the brain, since they reduce the perception of pain, give us pleasure and an immense feeling of well-being and happiness. This is the reason why swimming is so addictive, because the secreted endorphins bind to the opioid receptors in the brain, responsible for functions such as sedation, pain reduction or euphoria.

Let no one be scared. Endorphins are not negative at all, quite the opposite. Among other things, they have been shown to be effective in treating depression. Some studies have even shown that they are much more effective than some antidepressant drugs. In this sense, swimming as a therapy improves mood and reduces the symptoms of those who suffer from this disorder. This would allow medication to be reduced or even eliminated in some patients.

Part of the antidepressant effect could be due to the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, something that occurs after swimming. The hippocampus is also the area of ​​the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Brain training for all ages

We know that physical activity helps keep our minds sharp as we age, but not just in older people. Some work has found that swimming helps develop the infant brain. Specifically, a recent study has shown that children between the ages of 6 and 12 have a better ability to remember vocabulary after having swum for several minutes. This activity therefore appears to enhance memory in people of all ages.

Another of its great virtues is that it stimulates brain function. This is the result that has been reached after a study carried out on adult swimmers, who, after 20 minutes of swimming, improved said function.

Much of the blame for these benefits lies with BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), a brain growth factor that improves memory and cognition. Because what differentiates swimming from other cardiovascular activities is precisely that it stimulates the release of BDNF.

Relax and disconnect

The reason could be simpler than we think: water. On the one hand, the liquid medium produces relaxation, but, in addition, the rhythmic movement of swimming makes us enter a meditative state. Added to this is the fact that in the water we can disconnect from the sounds that surround us and hear only our breathing.

The benefits do not end here. Swimming reduces emotional tension, since it reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. It also increases the production of serotonin, one of the hormones of happiness that helps us fight anxiety, depression and stress.

And as if that were not enough, the nerve fibers of the corpus callosum – the brain wiring that allows communication between the two hemispheres – are more developed in swimmers thanks to the precision of the strokes and the way in which bilateral crossed movements are used to to swim.

And it is that swimming activates both hemispheres, which need a greater amount of oxygen. This increased communication between the two sides of the brain leads to increased cognition and better learning abilities.

But don’t go away… there’s still more!

Stop cognitive deterioration

Recently, a study has shown that swimming suppresses cognitive decline in obese mice. The purpose of this work was to reproduce in animals what happens in humans when they gain weight as a result of a poor diet. This translates into a deterioration in learning and memory capacity, which is closely related to the inflammation of the nervous tissue and the decrease in neurotrophic or growth factors in the brain.

Swimming reverses these abnormal changes. Consequently, it rescues obese mice from impaired learning and memory capacity, reducing obesity, reducing hippocampal inflammation and increasing the production of neurotrophic factors such as BDNF.

If you swim regularly, surely you had not thought about all that this activity brings you. So from now on, after the post-swim high or pool addiction, think about everything that’s going on in your brain after swimming.

For non-swimmers, if you need an excuse to jump in the pool this summer consider this article a sign.

Who knows? Likewise, the secret of eternal youth is found in the water.

This article has been published in ‘The Conversation‘.

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