Although it’s not entirely clear exactly how exercise alleviates depression, science has known for some time that it does make a difference. According to a 2004 review in the journal Current Psychiatry, “exercise has been shown to be more effective at reducing depressive symptoms than no treatment, occupational therapy, cognitive therapy, health seminars, routine care, or meditation.” Exercise has also been favorably compared with medications in treating depression. Though study subjects typically engage in land-based activities such as walking or biking, it seems likely that swimming could induce similar benefits.
One thing we do know is that exercise triggers the release of endorphins—feel-good chemicals produced by the central nervous system that work like painkillers. Endorphins engage the same neurotransmitter receptors as opioids, and are responsible for the sensation known as runner’s high—a sense of euphoria that can result after a certain length of time working at a certain intensity level. The time and intensity needed to trigger a runner’s high varies by individual. Running is not the only exercise that causes this feeling—most any intense activity can induce it.
Exercise also encourages the brain to create more of several other neurotransmitters that also regulate mood—noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. An increase of these chemicals has been associated with improved mood. Simultaneously, vigorous physical activity increases steroid reserves, allowing your body to better counteract stress. It’s no secret that stress can greatly exacerbate the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
More recent research has found that vigorous aerobic exercise also promotes the creation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that promotes nerve cell survival and promotes the growth of new cells in the brain. It’s been implicated as helping to stave off the arrival of age-related cognitive decline and dementia. Depression is a major symptom of dementia, so it’s believed that BDNF might be protective against depression as well by creating new neural pathways.
Regular physical exercise also helps you sleep better at night; insomnia and poor sleep are distressing symptoms very commonly associated depression and anxiety disorders. And, it boosts self-confidence—getting in a good workout provides a sense of accomplishment that can color the rest of the day. Although it can be a complex undertaking for swimmers with body image issues to don a suit in public every day, studies have found that overall, exercise improves body esteem in patients with body image disturbances.
For most of us Masters swimmers who train with other people, there’s a social piece of the puzzle, too. Connecting with others, particularly when you’re engaged in a physical activity together, has been shown to boost brain health and mood and is increasingly being recommended as a way to combat dementia. Socializing while depressed can be challenging, as a major symptom of depression is isolation, or removing oneself from social settings. But taking some of the thought out of socializing by simply turning up to an organized workout could make connecting with others and finding like-minded friends to support us through the dark times easier for many people dealing with depression.
Taken all together, there’s a growing body of evidence that any form of exercise helps ease depression. But swimming may yet have one more ace up its sleeve as the superior depression-beating option—the water itself. Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist, made waves in the field of psychology with the release of his bestselling 2001 book “Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do,” which detailed the psychological effect being in or near water can have. In short, he wrote that water calms and soothes the human psyche, providing cognitive and emotional benefits that may be challenging to exactly quantify but that are very real all the same. Researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom have picked up this thread and are studying how something as simple as watching a video of the ocean while exercising on a stationary bicycle might elevate mood.
How about cutting out the middleman and getting your exercise in the sea instead?
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