Swimming as a Positive Moderator of Cognitive Aging

We know that aerobic exercise provides many physical and psychological health benefits. Some of these benefits are so valuable, that therapists working with patients that have cognitive impairment may want to consider encouraging their clients to exercise. Swimming, a well-regarded aerobic exercise activity by young and older adults alike may support cognitive functioning during the aging process. In this blog post, we share how swimming may be a positive moderator of cognitive aging. 

How may swimming be a positive moderator of cognitive aging?

Aerobic exercise makes your heart beat faster, which causes blood to flow throughout your body, including through your brain. Regular exercise allows for healthy circulation of blood, which delivers nutrients and oxygen to your organs and tissues. In addition, many studies have found that exercise even circulates certain brain chemicals, which can cause us to feel happier. 

Swimming, a popular aerobic activity, is accessible to both young and older adults as water activities relieve pressure put on joints. For older people, water activities alleviate a fear of falling, allow them to engage with light weights for exercises, and is conducive to encouraging a regular exercise regimen. Researchers hypothesized that older adults who swam are more likely to not experience the same age-related cognitive decline in executive functioning and processing speed as their older counterparts who lived a sedentary lifestyle and that swimming may have a selective effect on modulating executive functioning and processing speed rather than global.

Researchers studied 32 older adults over the age of 65 and 16 younger adults between the ages of 18 to 30 years old. Older adults were evenly split into sedentary or active groups, depending on their experience and amount of swimming that they performed. The study examined 16 younger adults, 16 active older adults who swam regularly, and 16 older adults who performed little to no swimming activity.

Participants came in for three study visits: one visit where they were assessed for their aerobic capacity, and two visits where participants performed cognitive tasks which included 8 executive function tasks that tapped inhibition, updating, and shifting abilities, and 2 processing speed tasks. In the study, researchers found that age does impact performance on all three executive functioning domains and information processing speed tasks where younger participants performed better than older participants. Most importantly, in examining the performance of older adults who swam regularly in comparison to older adults who live a more sedentary lifestyle, older adults who swam regularly performed better on executive functioning tasks than did adults who did not. There was no difference between older adults who swam and older adults who were sedentary in the performance of processing speed tasks, which may suggest that the cognitive benefits of swimming may be selective to specific cognitive domains. 

What does this mean for you and your client?

Clinical providers can help themselves by performing regular exercise, such as swimming. Regular physical activity may provide relief from stress resulting from long work days. It also may help you focus better during therapy sessions when working with your client, as many regular exercisers report feeling a sense of improved concentration as a result of their exercise habits.


For your client, you may want to encourage them to try becoming a swimmer. If your client is afraid of swimming, other aerobic activities such as stationary biking, walking, running, or high-intensity interval training may help your client improve their physical, psychological, and cognitive health. Talk with your client about some ways that they can make aerobic activity a regular part of their daily routine.


Swimming may be an effective moderator to intervene against cognitive aging in older adults. Researchers found that older adults who swam regularly performed better on executive functioning tasks than did adults who were sedentary. There were no differences between older adults who swam and older adults who did not on information processing speed tasks, suggesting that swimming may moderate only certain cognitive functions. Swimming is an aerobic activity favored by many older adults as it reduces many physical limitations and fears shared by older populations. You may want to encourage your client to consider swimming as a way to maintain their physical, psychological, and cognitive health. 

Abou-Dest, A., Albinet, C. T., Boucard, G., & Audiffren, M. (2012). Swimming as a positive moderator of cognitive aging: a cross-sectional study with a multitask approach. Journal of Aging Research, 2012.
Dustin Luchmee

Dustin was HappyNeuron's Product Specialist. With research experience in stroke, Dustin learned how a stroke can change someone's life. He also learned how different kinds of therapists can work together to help a person get better. He is passionate about neuro-rehabilitation and finding the active ingredients for effective therapy.

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