The title of this post is a little misleading. Just about any kind of exercise will help spur the growth of new brain cells and make you a little bit smarter, extensive science has shown. So what's so special about swimming specifically?
That's the topic of a new, in-depth article on The Conversation written by neurobiologist (and avid recreational swimmer) Seena Mathew. In it, she digs into new but intriguing science that shows spending some time splashing your way across the pool may offer unique cognitive benefits beyond what you get when you go for a run, hike, or ride a bike.
Is swimming the best type of exercise for your brain?
For those interested in the neuroscience (or looking for some motivation to get to the gym), Mathew's article goes in-depth about the good things that happen in your brain when you do any sort of aerobic exercise. (I've written about this before here on Inc.com, too.) But the bottom line is working up a sweat seems to boost memory, kill stress, improve cognitive performance, and help ward off dementia.
Which is a pretty impressive list of benefits. But swimming, research suggests, might be even better for your brain than other types of exercise. Most of the evidence for this comes from research with rats. In one study, scientists forced rats to swim for an hour a day while periodically testing the little furry beach bums' memories by having them navigate a maze.
"After just seven days of swim training, researchers saw improvements in both short- and long-term memories, based on a reduction in the errors rats made each day," Mathew reports. These improvements went beyond what you'd expect just from the rats being more active.
Rats doing laps is cute, but does it say anything about humans? Mathew insists it does. "Although the leap from studies in rats to humans is substantial, research in people is producing similar results that suggest a clear cognitive benefit from swimming across all ages," she writes.
One study comparing swimmers with athletes in land sports showed swimming seems to give the brain an extra boost. Another study looked at the ability of kids to memorize vocabulary after swimming, coloring, and doing a CrossFit-like activity. The kids remembered far more words after swimming. "These findings imply that swimming for even short periods of time is highly beneficial to young, developing brains," Mathew claims.
Come on in, the water's fine
Mathew is crystal clear there is still much work to be done to confirm these results and understand why swimming might be among the best types of exercise for your brain. But if you're among those reading this in a place where this summer has been especially broiling, there is no need to wait for confirmation before hitting the pool, beach, or lake.
Swimming has always been a great way to keep fit and stay cool. Now, next time you dive in you can congratulate yourself on doing something especially nice for your brain as well.