10 Physical and mental health benefits of swimming

Whether physical or mental, swimming has vast health benefits. You can do butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, sidestroke, and freestyle in the water–all great ways to swim your way to a healthier and fitter body.

When you swim, your whole body is in action while not murdering your joints, unlike any other type of workout. 

Swimming is more than just a leisure activity; it is a powerful form of exercise that offers substantial health benefits for both the body and mind.

Studies have shown that regular swimmers have approximately half the mortality rate of those who lead inactive lifestyles.

Engaging in just two and a half hours of swimming per week can significantly improve mood and fitness, diminish the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and decrease the risk of chronic diseases in both men and women [1].

In the UK alone, swimming has been instrumental in alleviating anxiety and depression for about 1.4 million adults [2].

Beyond its mental health advantages, swimming is highly effective in boosting cardiovascular health, managing weight, and lowering stress levels. This makes it an all-encompassing exercise option that promotes overall physical and mental well-being.

Let’s identify five of each of the two important health aspects: physical and mental impacts of swimming.

What are the physical health benefits of swimming?

Basically, swimming is a form of exercise in which you use both your upper and lower body parts, especially your arms, shoulders, back, chest, legs and feet. It is perfect if you want to strengthen your core, and with its nature, you can reap five of the major physical health benefits below. 

1. Increases cardiovascular strength

Swimming is a killer cardio exercise! It involves mainly large muscle groups working together at the same time, which also needs your heart to work hard in order to pump enough oxygen throughout your body. Consequently, it enhances your cardiovascular strength. 

Cardiovascular exercise, like swimming, works on bettering the heart, lungs and circulatory system. In fact, research suggests that regular swimmers have lowered their all-cause mortality risk by 53%, 50%, and 49%, in comparison to those who have sedentary lives, walkers, or runners, respectively.

The researchers derived the claim after they adjusted certain factors, including age, body mass index (BMI), smoking status, alcohol consumption, and family history of cardiovascular disease [3]. 

A 2016 study further indicates that swimming can help decrease blood pressure after fifteen overweight adult males involved in this study completed eight weeks of swimming training and four weeks of detraining [4].

2. Improves sleep quality

Regular swimming can help promote better sleep at night, which makes it a good choice of exercise for older adults. Research reveals that aerobic exercise, like swimming, can boost the quality of life and sleep of adults with insomnia after they engage in the form of exercise for weeks [5]. 

One factor that disrupts your healthy sleeping is the lack of exercise; hence, swimming, as a form of physical activity, can help in bettering sleep.

Your body temperature increases during swimming, and it drops after, which signals your body that it is time to sleep. Hence, enjoying a few hours at the pool within a few days can enhance the quality of your sleep over time.

3. Maintains bone health

As a full-body workout, you can get a metabolic benefit when you regularly swim. In fact, a person with 155 pounds can burn around 432 calories after swimming, which is higher compared to 266 calories at a moderate pace of walking, as cited by the Harvard Medical School [6]. 

In the 2021 study, the researchers found that around 16 weeks of swimming can lead to significant reductions in body fat and body mass index, as published by the BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation [7]. 

Many people all around the world have osteoporosis or low bone mass. In fact, one in two women is at risk of breaking a bone because of osteoporosis versus one in four men.

Resistance training and high-impact physical activities have always been the top-tier standard for enhancing bone density–swimming may definitely help.

4. Helps with chronic pain

Swimming can help with certain conditions, such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, which can cause reduced mobility and, in many cases, short- or long-term pain. A range of aquatic activities, like swimming, is known to aid people with musculoskeletal conditions to enhance physical function and quality of life. 

In a study involving people with osteoarthritis, it was found that the participants who swam for 45 minutes three days per week had less joint pain, minimized stiffness, and improved muscle strength [8]. 

While water workouts may be challenging, the buoyancy of the water adds resistance but is still low-impact at the same time. Hence, aquatic physical therapy can help start and condition your body, especially for people with fibromyalgia or more severe pain.

5. Strengthens lungs

Lungs are significant benefactors of swimming, so if you have been diagnosed with a lung condition, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, you may benefit a great deal. 

Swimming trains the body muscles that are involved with respiration. It helps in enhancing lung volume and breathing techniques. Also, the pool can provide an ideal exercise setting if you have asthma because it is humid, warm and usually a low-pollen environment.

However, you should first consult with your doctor before starting a swim routine, especially if you have a lung or other medical condition that could interfere with your ability to exercise. 

How does swimming help your mental health?

As a form of exercise, swimming is good for mental health. Exercise can generally release happy chemicals, such as endorphins and serotonin, that improve your overall mood.

To be more particular about the mental health benefits of swimming, check out the following. 

1. Reduces anxiety 

Managing the symptoms of anxiety can be a real challenge; it is a good thing that regular swimming may help. 

Many research studies have shown that being physically active can positively impact your mental health, particularly in increasing self-esteem, decreasing the risk of depression, and slowing cognitive decline.

One research suggests that swimming can significantly reduce anxiety symptoms for 1.4 million adults in Britain [9]. 

In another study, the researchers found that swimming sessions should be from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on your fitness level and needs. Additionally, aquatic exercise was found to be a promising conservative therapy for mental health management, particularly:

2. Helps with symptoms of depression

Swimming can release endorphins, which are the so-called “feel-good hormones” that ease the melancholic feelings of depressed people. Physical activity works wonders on your brain and promotes the growth of new brain cells.

A 2020 research study involved participants in a 10-week swim program to reduce fatigue and anger, and symptoms of depression. In the end, the researchers concluded that swimming could improve mood and a sense of well-being.

An extensive review of multiple studies backed up the claim that swimming significantly reduces symptoms of depression and enhances mood [10]. 

3. Relaxes and reduces stress

After a stressful day, you may want to consider swimming as it is known to help in clearing and relaxing the mind.

Research suggests that swimming helps with the growth of new brain cells in the areas of the brain that break down because of long-term stress. Although studies have not been conducted on humans just yet, it is believed that swimming may have a similar effect on us.

Swimming may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about relaxation techniques; however, it is as effective as the others with its low-intensity nature [11]. 

You can meditate by doing a regular rhythm of swimming strokes paired with the lapping of the water. When the water hits your skin, you can feel or experience something as good as a massage, demonstrating why aqua therapy is commonly used for fitness rehabilitation.

woman in bathing suit floating in swimming pool
Photograph: Wavebreakmedia/Envato

4. Boosts brain health

Swimming can boost overall brain health as it supports the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a compound that aids in repairing brain cells and promotes the growth of new ones.

BDNF enhances your brain’s neuroplasticity, resulting in improved cognitive function, including learning and memory.

Research discovered that the brain’s blood flow increased when in water. Having good blood flow to the brain is essential for supplying glucose, nutrients, and oxygen – with this, swimming can boost brain health.

Moreover, submerging yourself in the water can improve memory, concentration, and mood enhancement [12]. It is further revealed that the brain’s structure has the potential to grow as a result of exercising, making the oxygen supply increase in the brain, which then allows the brain to receive more nutrients.

5. Releases endorphins

Any form of exercise, including swimming, triggers your brain to release endorphins. When your brain releases the hormone, it interacts with brain receptors to trigger a positive or happy feeling and significantly reduces the feeling of pain and stress.

The common term “runner’s high” is a euphoric feeling caused by endorphins that you may experience after completing a workout. 

Experiencing the runner’s high after a workout can motivate you to do it regularly. The regular release of endorphins can enhance mental health over time and help your body respond better to stress.

Your body recognizes that physical activity is proven to lead to at least a 30% enhancement in self-worth, increasing general satisfaction in life.

How do you reap the benefits of swimming?

To maximize the health benefits of swimming, it’s important to approach this activity with a structured plan. Below is a table that outlines key strategies for leveraging the full potential of swimming for both physical and mental health:

StrategyDescriptionFrequency
Start slowBegin with short sessions and gradually increase the duration as your stamina improves.Start with 2-3 times a week.
Vary the strokesAlternate between different swimming strokes (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly) to engage different muscle groups.Vary in each session.
Set realistic goalsSet realistic and measurable goals, such as improving lap time, increasing duration, or swimming a specific number of days per week.Review and adjust monthly.
Incorporate intervalsAdd interval training by alternating between fast swimming and slower, recovery swimming.Include in at least 1 session per week.
Mindful swimmingFocus on your breathing and the sensation of the water, which can increase the meditative benefits of swimming.During every swim session
Cool down and stretchEnd each swimming session with a cool-down period and some stretching to prevent muscle soreness and enhance flexibility.After every session
Monitor progressKeep a record of your swimming sessions to monitor progress and stay motivated.Update logs after each session.

By following these strategies, you can effectively harness the vast health benefits that swimming offers, improving not just your physical fitness but also your mental well-being.

Final takeaways

Swimming is a profoundly beneficial exercise that offers many physical and mental health benefits. Its low impact makes it suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels, making it an accessible and versatile form of exercise.

By following structured approaches, you can maximize the health benefits of this aquatic activity. Additionally, the meditative aspects of swimming can help cultivate a peaceful mind and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Research continues to underscore the significant health benefits of swimming, making it a key activity for anyone looking to lead a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.

Ultimately, swimming helps maintain physical and mental well-being and enhances quality of life, providing a fun, rejuvenating, and effective way to stay healthy.

FAQs

What are the physical and mental benefits of swimming?

Swimming improves cardiovascular health, enhances muscle strength and flexibility, and offers significant mental health benefits such as reducing anxiety and boosting mood.

Is swimming good physical therapy?

Yes, swimming is an excellent form of physical therapy because it is low-impact, supports the body, and reduces the risk of injury while effectively rehabilitating muscles and joints.

How does swimming work on your mental health?

Swimming helps reduce stress, alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and promotes mental relaxation through the rhythmic and meditative nature of the strokes.

How does swimming help your heart and lungs?

Swimming increases cardiovascular fitness by strengthening the heart and improving circulation while also enhancing lung capacity and efficiency through controlled breathing and aerobic exercise.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/swimmers/health_benefits_water_exercise.html 
[2] https://www.swimming.org/justswim/swimming-improves-mental-health/ 
[3] https://core.ac.uk/reader/234759340 
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5260035/ 
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2992829/ 
[6] https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/calories-burned-in-30-minutes-for-people-of-three-different-weights 
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7938372/ 
[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26773104/ 
[9] https://www.swimming.org/swimengland/new-study-says-swimming-benefits-mental-health/ 
[10] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S096522992200022X 
[11] https://www.bupa.co.uk/newsroom/ourviews/2017/10/benefits-of-swimming 
[12] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24553298/

Photograph: LightFieldStudios/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.