It’s no secret that aerobic exercise can help stave off some of the effects of aging. But a growing body of research suggests that swimming may provide a unique boost to brain health with Lifeguard class.
Swimming can also help repair stress damage and build new neural connections in the brain.
However, scientists are still trying to unravel how and why swimming, in particular, produces these brain-enhancing effects.
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As a neurobiologist trained in brain physiology, fitness enthusiast and mother, I spend hours at the pool during the summer. It’s not uncommon to see children playing and swimming happily while their parents sunbathe in the distance . And I’ve been one of those parents watching by the pool many times. However, if more adults recognize. The cognitive and mental health benefits of swimming, they may be more inclined to jump in the pool with their children.
New and improved brain cells and connections
Until the 1960s, scientists believed that the number of neurons and synaptic connections in the human brain were finite and that. Once damaged, these brain cells could not be replaced. But that idea was debunked when researchers began to see ample evidence. Of the birth of neurons, or neurogenesis, in the adult brains of humans and other animals.
There is now 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 mammals and fish.
Neural plasticity – or the brain’s ability to change, which this protein stimulates – increases cognitive function, including learning and memory.
Human studies have shown a strong relationship between concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor circulating in the brain and an increase in the size of the hippocampus The brain region responsible for learning and memory.
Aerobic exercise also promotes the release of specific chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. One is serotonin, which – when present in high levels – is known to reduce depression and anxiety. As well as improve mood.
In studies done on fish , scientists have observed changes in genes responsible for increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. As well as improved development of dendritic spines (protrusions on the dendrites or elongated portions of nerve cells) after eight weeks of exercise compared to with the control groups.
This complements studies in mammals that show that brain-derived neurotrophic factor increases the density of the neuronal column. The greater density of the spine helps neurons build new connections and send more signals to other nerve cells. With repeated signals, connections can become stronger.
But what’s so special about swimming?
Researchers still don’t know what swimming’s secret ingredient might be. But they are getting closer and closer to understanding this.
Since swimming involves all 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 increased blood flow can also lead to a large release of endorphins – hormones that act as natural pain relievers throughout the body. This wave brings the feeling of euphoria that usually comes after exercise.
Most of the research to understand how swimming affects the brain has been done on rats. Mice are a good laboratory model because of their genetic and anatomical similarity to humans .
The study also showed that swimming can help support neuron survival and reduce the cognitive impacts of aging. While researchers don’t yet have a way to visualize apoptosis and neuronal survival in people. They do see similar cognitive outcomes.
One of the most interesting questions is how, specifically, swimming improves short-term and long-term memory. To determine how long the beneficial effects can last. The researchers trained mice to swim 60 minutes daily for five days a week. The team then tested the mice’s memory by having them swim through. A radial water maze containing six arms, including one with a hidden platform.
The mice had six attempts to swim freely and find the hidden platform. After just seven days of swimming training, the researchers saw improvements in both short. Term and long-term memories, based on a reduction in the mistakes the mice made each day. The researchers suggested that this increase in cognitive function could provide a basis for using swimming. As a way to repair learning and memory damage caused by neuropsychiatric diseases in humans.
While the gap from mouse studies to human studies is substantial. Research in people is yielding similar results that suggest a clear cognitive benefit of swimming at all ages .
For example, in a study that examined the impact of swimming on mental acuity in older adults, researchers concluded that swimmers. Had improved mental speed and attention compared to non-swimmers. However, this study is limited in its research design as the participants were not randomized and therefore those who were swimmers before. The study may have had an unfair advantage.
Another study compared cognition between out-of-water athletes and young adult swimmers. While immersion in water itself made no difference. The researchers found that 20 minutes of moderate-intensity breaststroke swimming improved cognitive function in both groups .
Children also benefit from swimming.
The brain-strengthening benefits of swimming also appear to boost children’s learning.
Another research group recently examined the link between physical activity and how children learn new vocabulary words . The researchers taught children ages 6 to 12 the names of unfamiliar objects. Then they tested their accuracy in recognizing those words after doing three activities: coloring (resting activity), swimming (aerobic activity). And a CrossFit-like exercise (anaerobic activity) for three minutes.
They found that the children’s level of accuracy was much higher for words learned after swimming compared to the other activities (coloring and CrossFit). Which resulted in the same level of memory. This shows a clear cognitive benefit of swimming compared to anaerobic exercise. Although the study did not compare swimming with other aerobic exercise. These findings indicate that swimming for short periods of time is highly beneficial for young, developing brains.
The details of the time or laps required. The style of swimming, and which cognitive adaptations and pathways are activated by swimming are still being studied. But neuroscientists are getting closer and closer to putting all the clues together.