Swimming-related effects on cerebrovascular and cognitive function

Leena Shoemaker, Luke Wilson, Sam Lucas, Liana Machado, Kate N Thomas, J.D. Cotter

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6 Citations (Scopus)
132 Downloads (Pure)


Both acute and regular exercise influence vascular and cognitive function. Upright aquatic exercise increases mean middle cerebral artery blood velocity (MCAvmean) and has been suggested as favorable for cerebrovascular adaptations. However, MCAvmean has not been reported during swimming. Thus, we examined the cerebrovascular and cognitive effects of swimming. Ten land‐based athletes (22 ± 5 years) and eight swimmers (19 ± 1 years) completed three cognitive tasks and four conditions that were used to independently and collectively delineate the swimming‐related factors (i.e., posture, immersion, CO2 retention [end‐tidal CO2; PETCO2], and motor involvement). Measurements of MCAvmean and PETCO2 were taken throughout each condition. Prone posture increased MCAvmean by 11% (P < 0.01 vs. upright land). Water immersion independently increased MCAvmean when upright (12%; P < 0.01) but not prone (P = 0.76). The consequent rise in PETCO2 during head‐out, breast‐stroke swimming (50% heart rate range) independently increased MCAvmean by 14% (P < 0.01), while the motor involvement of swimming per se did not significantly change MCAvmean (P = 0.32). While accounting for sex, swimmers had ~17% lower MCAvmean during all rest conditions (P ≤ 0.05). However, in a subset of participants, both groups had similar internal carotid artery diameters (P = 0.99) and velocities (P = 0.97). Water immersion per se did not alter cognition (P ≥ 0.15), but 20 min of moderate‐intensity swimming improved visuomotor performance by 4% (P = 0.03), regardless of athlete group (P = 0.12). In conclusion, breast‐stroke swimming increased MCAvmean mostly due to postural and PETCO2 effects, with minimal contributions from water immersion or motor activity. Lastly, swimming improved cognitive functioning acutely, regardless of athlete group. Future research should explore the chronic effects of swimming on cerebrovascular function and cognition, particularly in aging.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere14247
Number of pages13
JournalPhysiological reports
Issue number20
Early online date22 Oct 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Oct 2019


  • Cerebral blood flow
  • Cognition
  • Reaction time
  • Swimming
  • Water immersion


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