07 Jan Want to be happier & healthier in 2019? Dive in (literally)!
Modern life is tough. We experience chronic stress and are “always on”. A little stress can be healthy, but like everything, it should be experienced in moderation. Too much stress can eventually result in burn out, memory problems, poor judgement, anxiety, and depression. Physically, chronic stress damages the cardiovascular, immune, digestive, nervous and musculoskeletal systems. It does this by lowering levels of serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are responsible for making us happy and low levels leaves us feeling exhausted and down.
The solution? Exercise, especially in water, can provide much-needed balance for your mental health!
Historically, our brains are wired to constantly scan for danger, which makes sense. Except now we’re faced with busy streets and email alerts, not lions. Our brains like being around water because there is a high degree of predictability. This allows the amygdala (the emotion centre of the brain) to relax.
Additionally, small disturbances such as waves breaking or birds flying past give a sense of surprise. That in turn causes a pleasurable hit of dopamine. Because of this simultaneous sameness and change, we get a soothing familiarity and stimulating novelty when we look over the water. It’s the perfect recipe for triggering a state of involuntary attention in which the brain’s default network, essential to creativity and problem solving, is activated. Studies have even shown that being at the beach, lowers blood lactate levels and elevates mood.
Blue looks good on you
There is a very fitting quote from poet Sylvia Plath; “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them”. It seems way too simple, but by simply being around, in, on or under water – can relax us.
Research indicates being immersed in water reduces stress, partly by balancing the flux between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. One study showed that simply taking a spa bath can significantly lower your salivary cortisol levels. Feeling anxious? Taking a hot 5-minute shower can measurably lower anxiety levels.
So… I can just sip mimosas next to the pool?
Technically, yes. But! While being around water can offer us some psychological and even physiological benefits to help counterbalance our stressful lives, exercise also has overwhelming positive effects on mood and psychological well-being!
Exercise does wonderful things to our brain. On a neuro-chemical level, it triggers the release endorphins and endocannabinoids (the brain’s natural cannabis-like substances) and reduces the brain’s response to stress and anxiety. It also elevates feelings of vigour, self-mastery, self-esteem and reduces feelings of tension, depression, anger, and fatigue.
Meet the power couple – Exercise in water for mental health
The feel-good effects of swimming have been assimilated to the “relaxation response” triggered by yoga. When we swim, our muscles are constantly stretching and relaxing, and this movement accompanied by deep, rhythmic breathing, put us in a quasi-meditative state. We also have to use a level of cognitive effort to learn and coordinate swimming strokes. This cognitive and aerobic combination can provide the brain with the satisfying stress-reducing feeling of “flow”.
So, if you’re feeling stressed, tense and a bit tightly wound, try utilising the powerful effects of exercise AND water! Go for a swim, try a run along the beach or even learn to surf… I promise you’ll feel better for it.
Jacinta Brinsley is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at iNform Health and Fitness Solutions, and is currently completing a PHD focusing on Mental Health.
Abboud, F. (1982). The sympathetic system in hypertension. State-of-the-art review. Hypertension, 4(3), 208-225. doi: 10.1161/01.hyp.4.3.208
Epstein, M., Norsk, P., & Loutzenhiser, R. (1989). Effects of water immersion on atrial natriuretic peptide release in humans. American Journal of Nephrology, 9(1), 1-24.