Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Just Keep Swimming: How Swimming Reduces Depression

swimming_2.jpgI’ve always known that I climb out of any pool a lot happier than when I dove in.
Yes, I know any kind of aerobic exercise relieves depression.
For starters, it stimulates brain chemicals that foster the growth of nerve cells; exercise also affects neurotransmitters such as serotonin that influence mood and produces ANP, a stress-reducing hormone, which helps control the brain’s response to stress and anxiety. But swimming, for me, seems to zap a bad mood more efficiently than even running. Swimming a good 3000 meters for me can, in the midst of a depressive cycle, hush the dead thoughts for up to two hours. It’s like taking a Tylenol for a headache! It was with interest, then, that I read an article in “Swimmer” magazine about why, in fact, that’s the case.
Here’s the gist, excerpted from the article “Staying Happy?” by Jim Thornton in the Jan/Feb issue of “Swimmer” magazine.


Regardless of cause, a growing number of researchers and psychologists alike have become true believers in the efficacy of swimming. “We know, for instance, that vigorous exercise like swimming can significantly decrease both anxiety and depression” says sports psychologist Aimee C. Kimball, director of mental training at the Center for Sports Medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Currently, there’s a ton of research looking at the various mechanisms by which it works.”

On the physiological level, hard swimming workouts release endorphins, natural feel-good compounds whose very name derives from “endogenous” and “morphine.” Swimming serves, as well, to sop us excess fight-or-flight stress hormones, converting free-floating angst into muscle relaxation. It can even promote so-called “hippocampal neurogenesis” – the growth of new brain cells in a part of the brain that atrophies under chronic stress. In animal models, exercise has shown itself to be even more potent than drugs like Prozac at spurring such beneficial changes.
Moby Coquillard, a psychotherapist and swimmer from San Mateo, Calif., is so convinced that he prescribes exercise to depressed patients. “I absolutely believe swimming can serve as a kind of medicine. For me, it represents a potent adjunct to antidepressant medications and, for some patients, it’s something you can take in lieu of pills.”
Besides possible biochemical changes in the brain, swimming requires the alternating stretch and relaxation of skeletal muscles while simultaneously deep-breathing in a rhythmic pattern. If this sounds familiar, it’s because these are key elements of many practices, from hatha yoga to progressive muscle relaxation, used to evoke the relaxation response. “Swimming, because of its repetitive nature, is incredibly meditative,” Coquillard says. There’s even a built-in mantra, be this the slow count of laps, or self-directed thoughts like “relax” or “stay smooth.”
“I teach a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy class for depression,” he adds, “and we use focus on the body here in the moment to keep past thoughts or future worries from invading our consciousness.” By concentrating on different aspects of their stroke mechanics, from hip rotation and kick patterns, to streamlining and pulls, regular swimmers practice this intuitively. The result: On a regular basis, most get a break from life’s not always pleasant stream of rumination.
Moreover, since most pools have set times for la swimming and coached Masters workouts alike, regular swimmer usually find themselves settling into a schedule that becomes automatic. There’s no need to decide if you should go exercise now or later. For stressed out people, this lack of options, says Coquillard, is paradoxically comforting because it removes the burden of yet another decision. “All you have to do is show up at the regular time,” he says, “and you know there’s a good chance you’ll end up leaving the pool feeling a little better than when you arrived.


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  • Mary

    Therese, I was really interested to see this post on swimming. I am currently training for a sprint triathlon, and though I started out dreading the swimming, I have really come to enjoy it–for all those reasons the article details. I recently aggravated an old foot injury, so I am swimming more and running less. And I have noticed how much better I feel after swimming. I’m not ready yet to do without my low-dose antidepressant, but at least I can now look forward to brief intermissions in my supremely boring anxiety-and-depression show.
    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  • worraps

    Amazing article…although I never swam with an intent, I always knew it calmed me. I have an anxiety disorder called trichotillomania. I notice that activites like swimming so completely distract me because of the focus on breathing and form, that I have no desire to indulge iun the destructive behavior that is trichotillomania.

  • Charly

    Even though my father was swam three or four times a week until the end of his life. Trying to control my breathing, which is required in swimming, makes my panic worse. Horses are the only way I can lose my panic and anxiety. The horse mind, like mine, is also a fear and flight animal. We lost our original two horses due the economic dive two years. I didn’t leave the house for the following two years. The past 6 months I found myself looking at the horses for sale online. My husband finally bought me another horse so I’d get out of the house again. I promised to ride at least 4 times a week. It also means driving over 30 minutes each way to the boarding facility. Once I close my front door and make the drive to the ranch all my mental angsy and extreme physical pains are gone. I just think doing any exercise you love will help anxiety and mental health. I love the fact that when I’m riding I’m making important decisions again regarding my horse’s rehabilition (the prior owners had neglected her), where I’ll ride, and what training I’ll do. It’s the only time in two years I can depend on myself. If only I could control the other aspects of panic and anxiety. Once home I go back to not being able to leave home.

  • Lisa

    I just swam again two days ago for the first time in years.. It WAS wonderful and reminded me of how much i enjoyed swimming in college. Like Charly though my REAL true and favorite antidepressant has been riding. Nothing gives me the rush, and joy that riding horses does. I recently found out that I have to stop. I have some injuries from a bucking incident last fall, and now have bulging discs and will need surgery to repair my shoulder..
    I’m worried (and depressed) that i won’t be able to find my a new”natural medicine”. I had even asked for ideas from friends yesterday. How timely this post …Thanks Therese
    I guess for now i’ll have to love my horses on the ground, and head back to the pool….

  • Billy

    Swimming is one of the best things to help keep me feeling young and full of vigor. I am 69 years old and swim a mile and a half three to four times a week in the bay here in Cabo San Lucas Mexico and have been doing it for twelve years. I finish by 8am and have a fruit smoothie at the office restaurant then home to shower and then to the office. it really make a difference in how my day goes. A doctor friend said it may keep the blod clots smaller. I agree Just Keep swimming

  • depression survivor

    Swimming is awesome! In addition to all the things mentioned in the article, swimming is also low-impact, so it’s something that one can do it they have foot/knee/ankle problems (like me) and they can do it all their life. Although I am glad my gym has lap swimming at pretty much all hours they are open. I like that flexibility!

  • Sanna

    You can get all the psychological benefits the author reports without swimming 3000 meters, which is close to 2 miles. Do whatever your conditioning and schedule permits to feel better.

  • Dianne

    One doesn’t even need to swim to benefit from time in the water. I used
    to be an active swimmer, but now have advanced arthritis. Three times a week,I meet with friends for a water aerobics class. It’s amazing the amount of exercise one can manage when it isn’t weight bearing. I have no idea of how hard I’m working until I get out of the water. I’m controlling my arthritis, rather than allowing it to control me. Quite a wonderful feeling!

  • Shari

    Swimming to me is a religious experience. Our bodies are 60-55% water. The water on earth is not new. It is recycled constantly. Thus the water on earth today is the same water that was on the earth when Jesus walked the earth. When we die our body goes back to the earth. When I swim, I swim in water that was part of Jesus. It is a spiritual connection that I love. I can pray and be blessed at the same time as I am part of something bigger than any of us. Having delt with depression for 40 years, swimming is my life’s joy. After I swim laps I water walk/dance. Water walking, listening to music, dancing in the water, and joy! I took an old baseball cap, hooked my MP3 player to the side and when I water walk I am listening, dancing, and having a joyful experience that is so joy filled I don’t care how silly I probably look at 60. I just hope my joy is contagious!

  • Darlene

    Hope to get started back at the YMCA soon

  • Elizabeth Wilkerson

    I go to the Y 3 times a week for deep water aerobics. I have been treated for depression twice. I fnd that being in the water helps both mentally and physically. I have made new friends this way also,which helps socially .

  • Erick Gibson

    Ur correct, swimming reduces depression and it is also good to our health and body. It’s a full exercise so most of us should know how to swim :) but may sure you have some pool spa supplies

  • swimming pool covers dude

    I had no idea that swimming could be so good for you in so many ways. I have heard that it is one of the best work outs that someone could do, but I didn’t know that the mental health benefits were so great. Thanks a ton. Now to the pool!

  • Swimming Lesson

    I agree with that..

  • Erick Richardson

    Swimming keeps us cool. It makes our body healthy because it is one of the best way of exercise. To add a note on this post, I personally advice you to enroll on a swimming training for triathlete. Its for everybody. I bet you will enjoy this fun-filled activity.

  • Jenny

    Swimming relaxes my mind and body. After a toxic day of work, I just going into our pool and just watched pool lights on the sides of our pool. In that way, I feel so relaxed and calm.

  • SEO Blog Philippines

    I have always been in love with water likewise with swimming. Currently I am studying and updating my SEO Blog Philippines while dipping my feet in our pool water. It really feels relaxing.

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