The Mental Health Benefits of Swimming and Water

by Craig Sears, President and Founder

In these stressful times, we are all looking for ways to improve our mental health. If you haven’t considered spending more time in the water, you should.  Studies show that swimming promotes both physical and mental health, and the more we swim, the more positive impacts we reap. Frequent swimming can be part of an effective treatment for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

Swimming, like any form of exercise, releases endorphins, which reduce our perception of pain and increase our sense of well-being. But swimming offers a unique experience, unlike other exercise options. Entering the water is like stepping into another realm where your perception is altered and your body moves differently than it does on land.  You focus on your body’s motion in the water, your breathing regulation, and avoiding collision with others and the pool wall.  All of this takes your mind away from the stresses of your day. 

Swimming also increases blood flow to the brain, which has been shown to reverse brain damage and allow new neurons to be regenerated.  A recent study even found that cold water swimming may slow down Alzheimer’s disease. The healing power of water is well established. 

Entering the water is like stepping into another realm where your perception is altered and your body moves differently than it does on land. 

Another wonderful way that swimming reduces stress is separating us from our electronic devices.  In the water, we resign ourselves to the fact that we will be without a screen and constant updates. This allows our brains to relax and engages our creativity in a similar way that dreaming does. New ideas form more easily. 

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols states in his book Blue Mind, “For many of us the ocean, and other bodies of water, literally pulls the stress from us.”  “Research has shown that being near, in, or underwater can provide a long list of benefits for our mind and body, including lowering stress and anxiety, increasing an overall sense of well-being and happiness, a lower heart and breathing rate, and safe, better workouts. Aquatic therapists are increasingly looking to the water to help treat and manage PTSD, addiction, anxiety disorders, autism, and more.”

Even the visual and audible stimuli of water affect our moods positively. The sounds of ocean waves and babbling brooks soothe us.  Most people prefer a water view to a city scape.  That’s why a lakeview vacation condo costs more than a street view condo in the same resort complex.  We love and value water intrinsically. 

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You may have heard that our bodies are roughly 2/3 water, which is true. We develop as fetuses in water.  We need water to live.  It shouldn’t surprise us that we crave water, because water is life.

In fact, dehydration also affects our mental health. Water is critical for temperature regulation, cellular function, and waste removal, to name a few of its essential functions.  When you are dehydrated, your body cannot properly regulate its systems.  A 5% drop in body fluids can cause a 30% drop in your energy level, which affects your mood, concentration, and productivity. This is not to say you should drink pool water! 

The CDC confirms that water-based exercise improves mental health.  That means even if you’re not a strong lap swimmer, or just find lap swimming boring, water aerobics, water polo, snorkeling, diving, will all improve your mental health and general mood. No wonder swimming is the fourth most popular form of exercise in the United States.

Next time you’re feeling down or stressed out, try immersing yourself in water, whether it’s in a swimming pool, spa, or just a bathtub.  If you don’t have access to these facilities, a nature walk near a body of water can also help. Bring some drinking water with you, too, and notice your mood elevate. Happy swimming!

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