You can now tell your parents that spending the time hanging off a cliff is good for you (and there is evidence to prove it).
It’s Friday evening and I feel exhausted, grumpy and touchy. It’s been a hard week racing to meet my own expectations and the ones from my workmates and family. Why adult life can sometimes be so overwhelming? I just can’t wait for the weekend to go to the cliff, meet the usual gang, tie up my knot and put my hands on the rock. By Sunday evening everything looks different. Everything seems less hard and I am happier with myself.
Anybody who has embraced rock climbing as part of their lives (either sport climbing or bouldering) must know what I am talking about. That feeling of ease and joy we only get when we get out of our daily routine, expose ourselves to our fears, goals and expectations and engage with a community of like-minded people. Our intuition tells us that this ritual is what keeps us sane and physically strong, but what does the science say about this? Has anybody taken the time to actually prove that our instinct is right and that, in fact, going rock climbing is our secret “therapy”?
Here are three evidence-based studies suggesting that rock climbing has positive effects on our mental health and wellbeing.
Led by the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and published in 2015, it is possibly one of the first and more comprehensive formal studies on the effects of climbing (gym bouldering specifically) on patients with a mental illness.
“To date, there have been only case reports or small observational studies on the effects of bouldering or rock climbing in the psychotherapeutic field. These studies on therapeutic climbing suggest that there might be positive effects on anxiety, ADHS, depression, cognition, self-esteem, as well as in the social domain.”
The scientists recruited participants that had “either a diagnosis of depression by a psychiatrist or less than 13 points on the WHO depression scale”, all of them beginners or with no rock climbing experience. One group went straight away into an 8-week bouldering therapy program. A second group waited for 8 weeks to participate in a second round of the program.
The standardised therapy plan was developed by professional therapists together with climbing experts. Once a week, a three-hour session started with a short mindfulness meditation and finished with a chat about the performance and lessons learned applicable to daily life. The bouldering program included not only physical and technical advice but also emotional and cognitive skills training. All participants continued receiving their original treatment as given by their psychiatrist or psychotherapist.
The results were positive and aligned with several different studies that suggest that physical activity only has a favourable influence on depressive symptoms: “Both groups improved during their intervention period with a significant difference between the intervention and the waitlist group during the first 8 weeks”. The particular benefits of bouldering against other fitness activities such as running or swimming in a pool were attributed to the social and cognitive challenging nature of this sport. Bouldering provides opportunities for social interaction and feelings of self-efficacy. Furthermore, the requirement of high levels of focus helps fighting the “thought rumination” pattern, one of the main manifestations in depression.
Even though these are all hypotheses and the authors suggested that more research is required, it was a positive first step observing and measuring the impact that climbing can have on mental wellbeing and how it could be effectively used as a therapy tool on patients with disorders.
This 2016 study tested the impact on anxiety levels in a group of young beginners during an 8 weeks sport climbing program at the University of Indiana. The participants engaged in top-rope climbing training and rope handling techniques for at least 3 times a week.
Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent type of psychiatric disorder and, in some cases, can affect the quality of life much more than other chronic disorders. According to the WHO, “globally, more than 260 million people are living with anxiety disorders”.
“When considering the negative effects and cost of anxiety disorders, as is true with other forms of physical activity, rock climbing can be used for the prevention and treatment of high levels of anxiety.”
The results showed a significant reduction in cognitive and somatic anxiety, an increase in self-confidence and also improved the VO2 max (the maximum or optimum rate at which the heart, lungs, and muscles can effectively use oxygen during exercise) of the participants.
In this 2017 study the researchers focused on the immediate effects of a rock climbing session on patients with major depressive disorder or bipolar, which normally suffer from deficits in emotion regulation, after a single session. Emotion regulation is defined as “processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions.
The study assessed 40 patients, half of them participating in a single two-and-a-half hours indoor sport climbing session and half engaging a relaxation therapy class. Right after each activity the researchers measured positive and negative affects, depressiveness and coping with emotions indexes.
The results showed a significant benefit in terms of emotion regulatory effect for the group participating in climbing when compared to the second group.
“Our findings demonstrate that types of sport requiring high levels of concentration and coordination and being associated with an early experience of goal achievement are probably associated with short-term emotion regulatory effects.”
Once again, the improvements observed in the climbing group were attributed to the high levels of concentration required, the social engagement and the personal experiences of self-efficacy, goal achievement and trust-building.
It’s safe. Bouldering and sport climbing are a comparatively safe sport even for people who have never tried before.
Anyone can do it. Because of the nature and the variety of routes at most gyms and natural crags, climbing can suit different fitness levels. As Nike says, “if you have a body, you are an athlete”.
It creates room for social interaction. Engaging in activities conducted in groups apparently makes us release more endorphins. This chemical elevates our pain threshold and increases our happiness.
It boosts our cognitive development. Activities that require high levels of coordination have a positive effect on cognitive abilities such as concentration, strategic thinking and goal setting.
It develops focus and mindfulness. High intensity exercise such as completing a climb at the edge of our capabilities forces us to “disengage from negative stimuli” and helps us let go of unhelpful thinking patterns.
It builds cooperation and trust. Bouldering and sport climbing require trust and confidence, in ourselves and our partners at the other end of the rope. They also encourage the exchange of feedback and tips about the execution of movements.
It’s an emotion stimulant and regulator. Climbing activates intense emotions of fear, accomplishment, frustration, success, doubt, self-confidence… And as suggested by one of the studies above it can act as an emotion regulator, which is a beneficial tool for coping with diverse mental illnesses.
These 3 research studies support the idea that climbing in its different forms may have beneficial effects on our everyday mental game. Not only appears to be a great way to develop our cognitive and emotional abilities but it could also be an effective therapy instrument towards mental health improvements.
Several health institutions in Germany already use climbing therapy as a complementary tool for traditional treatment. Other organisations around the world are using what it’s called bush adventure therapy or outdoors therapy to address behavioural and psychological disorders through contact with nature and wilderness. Surf therapy programs are helping kids in third world countries war veterans recover their inner peace and come back to life after chaos.
I started rock climbing when I was 15 years old and since then I devoted my life to it in a non-professional way. After loosing my mum to suicide and, as a consequence, experiencing PTSD and anxiety, climbing and being outdoors opened up as a new dimension. They were a tool for positively coping with the trauma and a driver towards my recovery.