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Why Swimming for Your Mental Health Might Be More Than a Quick Fix

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For as long as I can remember, swimming has been one of the few constants in my life. Monday and Thursday evenings were standardized each week by pasta bakes and somewhat reluctantly spending an hour in our “less than desirable” local public pool. As a child, I loved it; as a teen, less so. Our coach had once run the club with my grandmother, then continued to mentor my mother, sister and me, making it feel like an inherited rite of passage. It was a healthy dose of exercise with the additional perks of sociability. I swam in a lane with some of my closest friends. We would meet prior to sessions and eat pick-and-mix, hang around in the park outside and then leave together for a sleepover.

It wasn’t until my mental health steadily decreased as a teenager than I packed it in. Stresses of adolescence, pressures of exams and a steadily declining relationship with food and exercise formed a wedge between me and the sport, causing me to abandon it in 2015. I’m not alone in this either; the mental health epidemic is a serious issue facing modern society. Since 2006, antidepressant prescriptions in the U.K. have more than doubled. This is unsurprising on learning that 1 in 4 people in the U.K. will experience a mental health problem each year, and 1 in 6 reports experiencing a common mental health issue each week. One of the common side effects of depressive disorders is a disinterest in hobbies and activities which once engaged you. Similarly, somebody living with anxiety is likely to struggle to participate in everyday activities, therefore causing them to abandon the activities. In regards to my own mental health, this was very much the case. Years passed, and although I remained active, swimming was left untouched and very much a memory of my past.

That is until recently. I have just started my final and most important year of university, and throughout the summer leading up to it, I became acutely aware of the looming pressures and stresses in which I was to face: a dissertation, critically important essays, job hunts, balancing work and money. Coincidentally, I stumbled across a short video produced by the BBC about the correlation between swimming and stabilizing mental health. The fundamental nature of being in water is both calming and therapeutic, providing a moment of peace in the bustle of our everyday lives. Physically, the weightlessness eradicates any strain on the joints and supports our body as opposed to creating further tensions, making it accessible to many who might otherwise struggle with movement.

The video outlined a poll conducted by Swim England, the national governing body for swimming in England, that 1.4 million British adults found swimming aided a reduction in their symptoms of both anxiety and depression. The YouGov poll also revealed that 43 percent of this demographic revealed it made them “feel happier” and 26 percent said they “felt more able to complete daily tasks.” The endorphins from exercise will often aid me in regaining motivation and energy during a depressive period. Despite this, the competitive and somewhat judgmental environment I experience at the gym is the last space I want to be whilst riddled with insecurities and anxiety. These findings stimulated a reflection within me; maybe swimming didn’t have to be hours of training and competition?

The next day, equipped with my costume, fins and a fresh perspective, I hopped onto the tube and headed to my local pool, which coincidentally happens to be the aquatics center. For under 5 pounds, I ended up spending two hours casually gliding the lengths of the 50-meter stretch. Immediately, I felt the calm flood over me. Living in central London makes it difficult to find any space as tranquil as an empty pool. The instant relief I experienced is suggested to have stronger links to neurobiology than one may presume. It is thought that swimming aids in the rejuvenation of brain cells which have previously been damaged by chronic stress, scientifically referred to as hippocampal neurogenesis. These facts suggest swimming for your mental health may be more than a fad or a quick fix.

Personally, I believe putting aside a small amount of time without technology or any expectation of productivity is crucial. Getting back in the water after years of absence was like returning back to childhood, where nothing besides staying afloat matters. It gives us a much-needed moment of mindfulness in the mania that is modernity.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash

Originally published: February 11, 2019
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