Six ways swimming benefits your mental wellbeing

Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP
26 October 2021
Next review due October 2024

There’s something very therapeutic and calming about being in or near water. It helps to boost our sense of wellbeing and happiness. But do you know why we feel these positive effects? Here, I take a look at what the science says.

A woman swimming

What does the research say?

Scientific research has offered various reasons as to why swimming and being near water outdoors positively benefits our mental health and wellbeing.

1. Releases feel good hormones

Swimming, like all exercise, releases endorphins in your brain. These are the hormones that make you feel good. They help to increase positivity and bring about a sense of wellbeing and happiness.

Some research has shown that swimming may help to treat stress. For example, a few studies in rats have found that swimming can help to promote the growth of new brain cells in parts of the brain that break down during chronic (long-term) stress.

2. Boosts brain health

A healthy blood flow is important for keeping your brain healthy and can protect it from harmful toxins. One small study has found that just being in water increases the blood flow to the brain. The study participants were placed in water up to chest height. Scientists then measured blood flow to the brain while they were in the water, and when they drained the pool. These findings suggest that swimming boosts brain health.

3. Outdoor swimming benefits

During the pandemic when swimming pools were closed, you may have read news reports about a big surge in outdoor swimming (also called ‘wild swimming’). It seems that immersing yourself in natural water outdoors is particularly good for mental wellbeing too.

A more recent small study has found that cold water swimming may also be an effective treatment for depression. The theory behind this is that one form of stress, such as the shock of cold water, helps the body to respond better to stress linked with depression and anxiety.

4. Soothes your mind and reduces anxiety

It’s thought that swimming is a particularly good way to relax your body, soothe your mind and reduce anxiety. Some spas even play relaxing music that you can only hear when you put your head under the water!

People who live closer to the coast have also reported higher levels of good health and wellbeing. But, research on this is limited. More studies are needed to find out if this positive mental wellbeing is due to being by the sea, or other factors.

5. The calming effect of the colour blue

The colour blue is often thought of as calming – especially the sky and the sea on a beautiful day. Being near, in or under water is also thought to make you happier and healthier. But the findings on this are mixed and limited.

You might also have heard of the term ‘biophilia’, which means love of nature. It refers to our inbuilt desire to be near and connected with nature. This phenomenon may explain why we feel positive and happy when we’re by the sea or near water.

6. Encourages socialising

Swimming is a form of exercise you can do by yourself. Yet swimming pools and leisure centres do encourage socialising. Socialising is great for your brain and sense of wellbeing. Whether it’s meeting in the cafe afterwards, taking part in a swim challenge or doing water aerobics, leisure centres are great places to meet new people.

Mental health benefits of swimming: what other people say

“1t makes me feel accepted” - 24-year-old British Paralympic swimmer, Brock Whiston.

“When I swim, it’s just me and the water with no other distractions. I don’t feel as though I have a disability. No one looks at me differently – I feel included and proud of what I can achieve.”

“Swimming clears my head” - Katie Wilson, a 43-year-old working mum.

“I try to swim at least twice a week first thing in the morning. Swimming laps in the pool has an almost hypnotic effect, clearing my head and giving me the time to think over whatever comes to mind. I leave the pool ready for the day ahead, with my body and mind energised and focused.”

“I find it therapeutic” - Bupa Health Adviser, Perry Swann, who is 24 and has a level 1 qualification in teaching swimming.

“Whether it’s training, racing or for leisure, swimming always helps me disconnect from everything else. For me it’s a form of meditation as I’m able to feel the water and forget about everything else while I’m there.”

“I’ve always liked the sense of community that you find at swimming pools too. I often see people swimming and talking to others, regardless of whether they know each other.”

These quotes highlight the wonder of swimming – how something so simple can create such a variation of feelings and effects between people.

Ways to get swimming

Why not take some time to sit back and think about what swimming means for you? If you haven’t swam for a while, think about what it is that you liked about it. Here’s a few things to consider.

  • Check out your local leisure centre for swim times. Timetables are generally regular, but they might change during the school holidays.
  • Have you lost your confidence in water? Or perhaps you want to challenge yourself with a spot of outdoor swimming? Get in touch with your leisure centre and take advantage of the adult swimming lessons they may have on offer.
  • If you’re after a relaxing spa break, have a look on voucher sites. There are often lots of deals on spa days. Maybe take a friend or family member with you?
  • When swimming in the sea, stay in your depth and be aware of riptides and strong currents. Put your safety first and swim in a lifeguarded area.

Other helpful websites

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Samantha Wild
Dr Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP

    • Brukner and Khan’s Clinical Sports Medicine. Chapter 54: Exercise to treat neurological diseases and improve mental health. Mechanisms that underpin the effect of exercise., accessed October 2021
    • The health and wellbeing benefits of swimming: a systematic review. Swim England., published June 2017
    • Mohammad Amin Safari et al. The Effect of Swimming on Anxiety-Like Behaviors and Corticosterone in Stressed and Unstressed Rats. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020; 17(18): 6675. doi:10.3390/ijerph17186675
    • Jiang P, et al. The impacts of swimming exercise on hippocampal expression of neurotrophic factors in rats exposed to chronic unpredictable mild stress. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2014. doi:10.1155/2014/729827
    • Purves D et al. The blood supply of the brain and spinal cord. Neuroscience 2nd Edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. ISBN-10: 0-87893-742-0
    • Carter HH, Spence AL, Pugh CJA, et al. Cardiovascular responses to water immersion in humans: impact on cerebral perfusion. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2014; 306(9):R636-40. doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00516.2013
    • Christoffer T et al. Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder. BMJ Case Rep. 2018; bcr2018225007. doi:10.1136/bcr-2018-225007
    • Wheeler B et al. Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing? Health & Place. Volume 18, Issue 5, September 2012, Pages 1198-1201
    • Wallace J Nichols. Why water makes you happier, more connected and better at what you do. Blue Mind., accessed October 2021
    • Gascon M, et al. Mental health benefits of long-term exposure to residential green and blue spaces: a systematic review. Int J Environ Res Pubic Health 2015; 12:4354-79. doi:10.3390/ijerph120404354
    • Cynthia Felix, et al. Greater Social Engagement and Greater Gray Matter Microstructural Integrity in Brain Regions Relevant to Dementia. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 76, Issue 6, July 2021, Pages 1027–1035. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbaa173

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Did you find our advice helpful?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our healthy lifestyle articles.

Content is loading