Is Swimming The Ultimate Mental Health Habit?

To celebrate World Mental Health Day we spoke to the experts BelievePerform to look into why exactly swimming is so great for our mental health. They’ve highlighted five great reasons below – so read on to learn more!

The psychological and physical benefits of 20 to 30 minutes of exercise three times or more a week, have been promoted for a long time. These general messages are great, but getting into the detail of the specific benefits of different activities is often more helpful. When it comes to swimming, the mental and physical benefits add up to a very worthwhile mix.

Let’s start with the mental benefits. While everyone is rushing to plug into meditation apps to learn the power of mindful thinking as well as learning to breathe properly with various gurus, we know that time in the water offers many of the same benefits with much more besides.

Mindfulness in action

The popularity of mindfulness is hard to ignore. People are being taught the value of being in the moment, noticing feelings and letting thoughts come and go without attaching meaning to them. It doesn’t take long when talking to someone who swims regularly to realise that every time they’re in the water, they’re getting a great mindfulness practice in addition to the physical benefits.

Focusing on rhythmical breathing and tuning into a stroke by stroke existence in the water instantly begins to replicate mindfulness practices. When you’re swimming, you’re totally focused on the here and now and creating the control and movement you want. With every controlled breath the stresses and pressures from the outside world fade away and you develop the skill of being able to tune totally into yourself and tune out from the less controllable things in life that often create worry.

This combination of controlled breathing and totally present focus ensure that brain and body are uniting to create a wonderful foundation for ongoing stress management. Not only do you get a great reset mentally and physically every time you swim, you also carry the positive benefits with you as you get out of the water and get back into life. Now that is a mindfulness programme that’s way better than any app you might choose to use!

Anxiety under control

With a great foundation of regular mindful swimming in place, there’s a series of other psychological benefits that are worth calling out. As we’ve said with mindfulness, swimming creates a really strong reset for the brain and body.

People who find their anxiety levels are often a challenge, they are often worried about not being in control of future events, are preoccupied with thoughts about what other people are thinking about them, and can be focusing excessively on the need to be completing tasks to a very high level.

By building on the foundation of mindfulness, you can quickly see how swimming is a great anxiety antidote. First, you’re making a positive choice to swim for your health and happiness – you’re taking control, rather than worrying about it.

Second, because you’ve made the positive choice to do something for yourself, you’re reducing the time spent worrying about what other people are thinking. Finally, if you’re focused on enjoying time in the water to get fitter, you can choose to push yourself as much or as little as you want with each swim, in the knowledge that every stroke you take is helping you be a little bit fitter or stronger than if you hadn’t taken it.

There are lots of great reports that detail the value of being part of swimming groups where everyone gets the chance to chat before and after sessions. Very often there’s a lot of positive sharing, support and sharing successes, which all contribute to reducing anxiety away from swimming too.


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Self-esteem upgrade

It’s a very positive picture as the dominoes of mental and physical health start to knock each other over. With a powerful and repeatable way of reducing anxiety, you open up the path for some boosting. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, you’re benefiting from the self-esteem strengthening qualities that build up with regular swimming. Just think about the changes in how your body looks and how you feel about it. Those changes in how we look and how much fitter we feel typically create a great platform for more regular, positive thoughts about ourselves.

There’s a virtuous cycle that we can get into when swimming regularly because of the clear evidence that it’s making a difference. Each bit of evidence is another positive layer of self-esteem:

  • A regular distance is covered more quickly and with less effort
  • We recover quicker within a swim and after a swim
  • We can swim further and push ourselves harder
  • Our resting heart rate is lower
  • Body weight and composition is more to our liking

Keeping track of these bits of evidence provides a great foundation on which to strengthen confidence and self-esteem and with every additional swim you do, even if the progress isn’t so fast, you know you’re cementing in place all of the good work you’ve already accomplished.

Mood booster

Finally, there’s few things more helpful for mental health than a boost of endorphins. From getting into the water and your body adapting to the new temperature and environment, through to the surge of chemicals coursing through your veins at the end of a swim, the investment in swimming is one big payoff in positive stimulants!

Many people have written about the “runner’s high”, but the Swimmers high is just the same, and this natural boost has a great impact on our mood. Although we feel tired after a swim, the boost in endorphins and the extra strain on our muscles means there’s a great sense of relaxation.  With many of the chemicals that are released, we can end up feeling more alert, focused and clear in our minds too. It’s a winning combination and it’s easy to understand why many people get hooked on their regular swims in the most positive way. Who wouldn’t want that kind of impact whenever you want it?

It’s worth reflecting back on all of your swimming that you’ve done and appreciating the accumulative, positive impact your time in the water has had for you. And then looking forward to all the continued benefits you’re going to get.

More and more groups of swimmers are uniting to add a really important element of social support to the individual benefits outlined here, and there’s no more important time than now to be searching out as many of these benefits as we can, together!

BelievePerform exists to support the mental fitness and wellbeing of the sport community with accessible, applied and engaging content for teachers, coaches and athletes. Established in 2013 it is the world’s no.1 applied sport psychology website and is led by Adam Morris, a trained CBT therapist who’s deeply passionate about how we all look after our mental health, every day, and Dr Chris Shambrook who was the resident team psyche for team GB rowing across 5 Olympic cycles.

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Writer and expert