The ‘Finest, Healthiest Sport In The World’: Why Climbing Is Good For Mental Health

“I find that rock climbing is the finest, most healthiest sport in the whole world. It is much healthier than most; look at baseball, where 10 000 sit on their ass to watch a handful of players” – John Salathé

Throughout history, extreme sports have often been linked in society with a certain mental fortitude. This is partially because of the risk factor involved, partially because participation is inherently selfish and partially because it can often be hard to comprehend why anybody would chase discomfort to the degree that death is a possibility.

Warren Harding famously answered the question ‘why do you climb?’ with the very simplistic answer ‘Because we’re insane.’ after his first ascent of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite Valley. While this was a funny answer at the time, it speaks volumes for how people see those within the community.

Choosing to not only accept the level of danger involved, but to actively seek it out, creates images of vagabonds, of reckless behavior and of carelessness.  There is a stereotype associated with most extreme sports that illicit James Bond like impressions, and that has been done more harm than good by over-dramatic films about mountain life (Brutal and unwatchable examples include Vertical Limit, and Cliffhanger.)

“This rope looks 60 years old, will it hold? No, probably not.”  – Cliffhanger

As the above films prove, Climbing is no different. So again we return to the question posed to Harding, why do you climb? Climbing is often a mental battle, it requires strength of mind and a faith in your body and your ability that many other aspects of life do not. Committing to a move, or route, can be both incredibly scary and exhilarating. The adrenaline rush is often high, and there has to be a deep understanding of the risk involved to stay as safe as possible

Despite the stigma, and the misunderstanding about what draws people to this sport, research has suggested there are a great many more benefits than first meet the eye. Climbers who regularly partake report several significant positive effects on their health, both physical and mental. Many site it as one of the reasons they keep coming back, and as one of the highlights of the sport.

A study by the university of Arizona in 2017 suggested that bouldering could be an effective treatment of depression in adults. The researcher, Eva-Maria Stelzer, said

“Bouldering, in many ways, is a positive physical activity. There are different routes for your physical activity level, and there’s a social aspect along with the feeling of an immediate accomplishment when bouldering.”

In similar research around this study area,  the University of Erlangen-Nurember found evidence that supports bouldering as a depression treatment.  Participants were recruited that had a diagnosis of depression from a medical professional, and that were beginner or non-climbers. They were put through a relatively rigorous eight weeks of bouldering, with very positive results that aligned with other studies that suggested physical exercise has a significant impact on mental health improvement. The particular benefits of bouldering were put down to the social and cognitive challenge, which is a key aspect of all climbing sports – rather than requiring solely physical exertion, they also require problem solving and mental aptitude.

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Around 1 in 4 people in the UK will have mental health problems each year, and in England 1 in 6 report having regular issues. Research has shown that outdoor activities can be incredibly good for mental health. This isn’t climbing specific, but given how much time climbers spend outside it can easily be translated. Just the walk in will begin to make a difference, and spending hours on a crag side has no end in emotional benefits.

There are also clear links between physical activity and reduction of stress and anxiety, and climbing combines the two.  Taking up any sport can have a positive impact on mental health, but the process involved in climbing and the danger involved seems to have a bigger effect than other activities might, as it intently focuses the mind and encourages a direct approach to thinking.

Jack Waite, Climbing Coach and Ice Climber said “The thing about climbing is it gives you space, and time to breath. You can’t think about anything but what you’re doing right at that moment. Your focus is completely taken by the rock, so everything else becomes meaningless. How can you worry about work when you’re 100 meters up a cliff? It just doesn’t seem important.”

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Jack at his university wall.

“Even the biggest problems can feel small. It might just be a happy side effect of what we do, but I can see how it could be really helpful for someone going through a difficult time.”

Physical activity is known for benefiting mental health, but climbing is rarely talked about. Within the community, there is more and more awareness for problems relating to depression and anxiety. As the taboo on mental health is finally, and rightfully, lifted it has opened the door for more honesty and more support. With this, hopefully we will see an increase in people using climbing as an outlet for their stress. It won’t fix everything, and we still need to be aware that there are people in our climbing family that will need help, but the research speaks for itself.

If you want to get involved, I recently published a post on how to start your climbing journey. The NHS Self-Help site also has some advice and information on the overall health benefits of climbing and on how to get started. Alternatively, you can look up your area on the UKC Directory to find your nearest indoor climbing wall. 

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