Scientists believe swimming could provide a unique boost to brain health.
Science has already shown that aerobic exercise can slow ageing.
However, a growing body of research suggests that swimming in particular produces brain-enhancing effects, such as better immune response.
Neuroscientists are still working to understand exactly why swimming is particularly beneficial in preventing ageing - and may be close to the answer.
Regular swimming has been shown to improve memory, cognitive function, immune response and mood. Swimming may also help repair damage from stress and forge new neural connections in the brain. But scientists are still trying to unravel how and why swimming, in particular, produces these brain-enhancing effects.
New and improved brain cells and connections
There is clear evidence that aerobic exercise can contribute to neurogenesis and play a key role in helping to reverse or repair damage to neurons and their connections in both mammals and fish.
Research shows that one of the key ways these changes occur in response to exercise is through increased levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. The neural plasticity, or ability of the brain to change, that this protein stimulates has been shown to boost cognitive function, including learning and memory.
Aerobic exercise also promotes the release of specific chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. One of these is serotonin, which – when present at increased levels – is known to reduce depression and anxiety and improve mood.
But what’s special about swimming?
Researchers don’t yet know what swimming’s secret sauce might be. But they’re getting closer to understanding it.
Swimming has long been recognized for its cardiovascular benefits. Because swimming involves all of the major muscle groups, the heart has to work hard, which increases blood flow throughout the body. This leads to the creation of new blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis. The greater blood flow can also lead to a large release of endorphins – hormones that act as a natural pain reducer throughout the body. This surge brings about the sense of euphoria that often follows exercise.
In one study looking at the impact of swimming on mental acuity in the elderly, researchers concluded that swimmers had improved mental speed and attention compared with non-swimmers. However, this study is limited in its research design, since participants were not randomized and thus those who were swimmers prior to the study may have had an unfair edge.
Another study compared cognition between land-based athletes and swimmers in the young adult age range. While water immersion itself did not make a difference, the researchers found that 20 minutes of moderate-intensity breaststroke swimming improved cognitive function in both groups.
Kids get a boost from swimming too
The brain-enhancing benefits from swimming appear to also boost learning in children.
Another research group recently looked at the link between physical activity and how children learn new vocabulary words. Researchers taught children age 6-12 the names of unfamiliar objects. Then they tested their accuracy at recognizing those words after doing three activities: coloring (resting activity), swimming (aerobic activity) and a CrossFit-like exercise (anaerobic activity) for three minutes.
These findings imply that swimming for even short periods of time is highly beneficial to young, developing brains.
For centuries, people have been in search of a fountain of youth. Swimming just might be the closest we can get.
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Seena Mathew, Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
This article is published in collaboration with The Conversation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.