Swimming, a Powerful Exercise for Depression
Exercise for depression including swimming can be an effective treatment for depression.
Sometimes, as good or better than antidepressants, especially for individuals with treatment-resistant depression.
By Therese J. Borchard
I’ve always known that I climb out of any pool a lot happier than when I dove in.
Yes, you know that the effects of exercise improve general health markers like high blood pressure, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes.
But, why is exercise an effective natural treatment for major depressive and anxiety symptoms?
For starters, the benefits of exercise stimulate brain chemicals that foster the growth of nerve cells.
Additional nerve cells help to promote mental health and prevent mental illness.
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.
The moral of the story is to get 30 minutes of physical activity to reduce stress and anxiety disorders.
Swimming and other exercises are a long-term balm for the scourge of depression in the United States and the World.
Staying Happy with Swimming
Here’s the gist, excerpted from the article “Staying Happy?” by Jim Thornton in the Jan/Feb issue of “Swimmer” magazine.
Regardless of the cause, a growing number of researchers and psychologists alike have become true believers in the great benefits of swimming.
“We know that swimming decreases both anxiety and depression,” says sports psychologist Aimee C. Kimball.
She is the director of mental training at the Center for Sports Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“Currently, there’s a ton of research looking at the various mechanisms by which it works.”
Swimming appears to be a magical elixir exercise for depression.
On the physiological level, a regular exercise program like hard swimming workouts releases endorphins.
These are natural feel-good compounds whose very name derives from “endogenous” and “morphine.”
Swimming serves, as well, to stop our 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 professor of psychiatry and swimmer from San Mateo, Calif., is so convinced that he prescribes exercise for depression to his patients who are fighting depression.
“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.”
Stretching and Relaxation
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.
How does this work?
“Because we use the focus on the body here in this 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 a pleasant stream of rumination.
Moreover, since most pools have set times for lap swimming and coached Masters workouts alike, regular swimmers 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.
You know you’ll leave the pool better than when you arrived.
About the Author
Therese J. Borchard is Associate Editor at Psych Central.
Another excellent read which includes exercise for depression is ‘From Depression to Life: Crossing the Bridge’ by Ben Isaac.
Have you used any type of exercise for depression?
If yes, please share your story about how exercise has helped you.