It is not news that physical exercise is beneficial for our brain. It adheres to a basic principle: what is good for our heart is good for our nervous system. But is there any physical activity that offers more benefits than others?
There are many reasons to go to the pool, lake or sea in summer: to make the heat more bearable, to have a pleasant time, to exercise your muscles, etc.
But the best of all is that swimming is one of the most complete exercises to improve our physical and mental health.
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And to convince you to continue reading this article, we are going to reveal a secret. The expression “fountain of youth” can be literal. And the secret is in the water.
Just so you have a preview: Swimming promotes the release of substances in the brain that improve cognition and memory, thanks in part to the fact that it helps establish new brain connections.
It helps our body fight oxidative stress and free radicals, reduces stress levels and improves our immune system. Overall, it improves the mood.
First, the physical benefits of swimming are undeniable. It is a very complete exercise that activates the main muscle groups in the body.
In addition to stimulating the cardiovascular system, the work performed ends up being 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 ends up being easier to move around.
But physical conditioning is just as important as mental health.
First, the physical benefits of swimming are undeniable. It is a very complete exercise that activates the main muscle groups in the body. — Photo: Pexels
Like a good aerobic exercise — one that requires an effort from the heart and lungs to supply oxygen to the muscles —, swimming produces the release of endorphins.
These substances are the brain’s natural drug, as they reduce the perception of pain, provide us with pleasure and an immense sense of well-being and happiness.
This is why swimming is so addictive, because secreted endorphins bind to opioid receptors in the brain, which are responsible for functions like sedation, pain reduction, and euphoria.
Don’t 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 medications.
In this sense, swimming as therapy improves mood and reduces the symptoms of those who suffer from this disorder. This would make it possible to reduce or even eliminate medication in some patients.
Part of the antidepressant effect may be due to the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, something that occurs after swimming.
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The hippocampus is also the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Brain training for all ages
Some studies have found that swimming helps develop children’s brains — Photo: Pexels
We know that physical activity helps keep our mind sharp as we age, but not just in older people. Some studies have found that swimming helps to develop children’s brains.
In particular, a recent study showed that children between the ages of 6 and 12 are more able to remember vocabulary after swimming 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 was the result achieved after a study carried out with adult swimmers, who, after 20 minutes of swimming, improved this function.
Much of the responsibility for these benefits lies with brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), 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.
The rhythmic movement of swimming makes us enter a meditative state — Photo: Pexels
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 don’t stop there. Swimming reduces emotional tension as it lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol..
It also increases the production of serotonin, one of the happiness hormones that help us fight anxiety, depression and stress.
And to top it off, 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 strokes and the way bilateral cross movements are used to swim. .
And swimming puts into operation 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 skills.
But don’t go away… there’s still more!
A brake on cognitive deterioration
Recently, a study showed that swimming suppresses cognitive decline in obese mice.
The aim of this study was to reproduce in animals what happens in humans when they gain weight as a result of poor diet.
This translates into a deterioration in learning and memory capacity, which is closely related to inflammation of nerve tissue and a decrease in neurotrophic and growth factors in the brain.
Swimming reverses these abnormal changes. Consequently, it saves obese mice from deteriorating learning and memory capacity by reducing obesity, decreasing hippocampal inflammation and increasing production of neurotrophic factors such as BDNF.
If you swim regularly, you certainly haven’t thought about all that this activity has to offer. So from now on, after the post-swim wave or pool addiction, think about everything that’s going on in your brain when you’re swimming.
For those of you who don’t swim, if you need an excuse to jump in the pool, take this article as a sign.
Who knows? The secret of the fountain of youth is also found in water.
*José A. Morales García is a professor and scientific researcher in neuroscience at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.
This article was originally published on the academic news site The Conversation and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Read the original version (in Spanish) here.
This text was originally published in https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-62344806