Fitness Tips

‘I’m a Neurobiologist, and This Is the Exercise I Recommend for Brain Health and Longevity’

Zoe Weiner

Photo: Getty/Marco VDM
There are plenty of reasons to hop in the pool this summer. To cool off, to crush a few laps, and the list goes on. But one of the best reasons to take a dip, according to a neurobiologist and assistant professor of biology at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, is that swimming is a superior exercise for your brain health and longevity.

For starters, swimming—like pretty much all other types of aerobic exercise—releases endorphins in your brain. "And that helps you feel better, so that's why with swimming you tend to have a change in depression and anxiety, and over time people don't see those symptoms as much," says Dr. Mathew. What sets swimming apart from cardio workouts like running and spinning, though, is that it's been more closely linked to boosting the brain chemicals associated with memory and cognition.

When I ask Dr. Mathew to give me the 101 Guide to what happens biologically while you swim, she explains that research has shown that the exercise releases a growth factor and peptide in your brain called brain derived neurotrophic factor (or, BDNF for short). "It's been found that when you have memory impairments and cognitive decline, you have lower levels of BDNF, and what has been seen is that swimming helps to increase those levels," she says. "This helps with memory and cognition, so over time, your memory is improving or staying the same as you age instead of declining."

The thing is, we don't exactly know why all of this happens in your brain, only that it does. As Dr. Mathew put it in a recent, well-cited paper, "Researchers don’t yet know what swimming’s secret sauce might be, but they’re getting closer to understanding it." Much of the research that has been done on the subject was conducted on rats, but one 2019 study conducted on 18 adult swimmers found that 20 minutes of swimming at a moderate pace helped to boost brain function, which is an indication that swimming for brain health could be the real deal, and we can begin to verify that with more research.

Dr. Mathew postulates that it could have something to do with the calming effects that water has on the brain. "Some of it could be that when you're entering the water, you're already at a different mental state, so you're getting into a meditative rhythm," she says. Though you may be able to achieve the same type of meditative state while running or cycling, research shows it's more common when you're in the water because, "you can kind of just tune out all the sounds, so it's just your breath and the water," says Dr. Mathew.

Beyond environmental aspects, there's also the fact that swimming employs your entire body. "I think another big aspect is that when you're swimming, your whole body is working," she adds. "You're still working your cardiovascular system when you're running, but when you're swimming you're also getting that added level of resistance from the water, so you're working your whole body more than you would be with other aerobic activities."

If you needed an excuse to pool hop this summer, consider this a sign.

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