How does swimming affect our brain? Scientists opinion

How does swimming affect our brain? Scientists opinion

It’s no secret that aerobic exercise in swimming pool helps prevent some of the effects of aging. Meanwhile, a growing number of studies show that swimming has unique benefits for the brain: it improves memory, cognitive function, the immune system and mood. What’s more, it helps recover from stress and build neural connections in the brain.

Researchers have not yet determined what the secret to swimming’s effectiveness is. However, they are getting closer to figuring it out. Sina Matthew, assistant professor of biology at the University of Mary Hardin at Baylor, explained what is known so far.

Formation of brain cells and connections

Until the 1960s, scientists believed: the number of neurons and synaptic connections in the human brain is limited and they do not recover from damage. Then it was proved that even in adult humans and other animals neurogenesis (formation of new neurons) takes place.

It is now known that aerobics stimulates neurogenesis and helps repair damaged neurons and connections between them in mammals and fish. These changes are due to increased levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein stimulates neuronal plasticity (the brain’s ability to change), which in turn improves cognitive function, including learning and memory.

Human studies have shown a strong correlation between concentrations of brain-derived neurotropic factor and an increase in the size of the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory). High concentrations increase cognitive abilities and help fight anxiety and depression. Lower concentrations, on the other hand, can cause affective disorders.

Aerobic exercise also promotes the release of special chemical mediators called neurotransmitters. One of these is serotonin, which, when elevated, can reduce depression and anxiety as well as improve mood.

Studies were also conducted on fish. After eight weeks of exercise, scientists observed changes in the genes responsible for an increase in brain-derived neurotropic factor and increased development of dendritic spines (protrusions on dendrites or elongated parts of nerve cells). The data add to mammalian studies stating that brain-derived neurotropic factor increases neuronal cell density.

These changes improved memory, mood and cognitive abilities in mammals. Greater cell density helps neurons make new connections and send more signals to other nerve cells. When signals are repeated, connections can become stronger.

Advantages of swimming

It has long been known that swimming is good for the cardiovascular system. During this process, all major muscle groups are engaged, so the heart works harder, which increases blood circulation throughout the body.

This leads to angiogenesis – the creation of new blood vessels. This increases the release of endorphins (hormones that act as natural painkillers). This is why people often have a feeling of euphoria after exercising in the pool.

The effects of swimming on the brain have been studied most in rats because of their genetic and anatomical similarity to humans. One such study showed that swimming stimulates brain pathways that inhibit inflammation in the hippocampus and prevent apoptosis (cell death).

Swimming also supports neuronal survival and reduces the effects of aging on the cognitive system. Scientists cannot yet visualize these processes in humans, although they have similar cognitive effects.

How does swimming affect our brain? Scientists opinion

To determine how long the positive effects on short- and long-term memory last, the researchers trained the rats to swim for an hour every day for five days a week. The rats were then placed in a water maze with six branches, one of which had a hidden platform. They had six attempts to find it. After just one week of training, the scientists found improvements in both short-term and long-term memory: the rats made fewer and fewer mistakes each day.

Based on these findings, scientists hypothesized that swimming could restore memory impairments caused by neuropsychiatric diseases in humans.

Studies also show that swimming is beneficial at any age. Researchers tested how it affects the mental abilities of older people and found that those who swam regularly had higher thinking speed and attention span. However, the trial was not randomized: those who swam earlier may have had an advantage.

Another study compared the cognitive abilities of swimmers and those who participated in land sports. On its own, immersion in water didn’t have much of an effect on performance. However, 20 minutes of moderate-intensity breaststroke swimming improved cognitive function in both groups.

Benefits of swimming for children

Swimming also enhances children’s memorization skills. Recently, a group of researchers studied the relationship between physical activity and how children remember new words.

Participants ages 6-12 were presented with names of unfamiliar objects. Their ability to recall these words was then tested after three activities performed for three minutes: coloring (recreation), swimming (aerobics), and crossfit (anaerobic exercise).

Children showed the highest results after swimming (coloring and crossfit were at the same level). Obviously, swimming provides greater benefits for the young developing brain compared to anaerobic exercise.

That’s another vivid example of how does swimming affect our brain. However, the study did not compare swimming to other types of aerobic exercise.

So far, neuroscientists only have to figure out how long to swim and in what style, as well as which cognitive pathways are activated during this process. However, they are getting closer and closer to putting all this data together.

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