Feeling down or anxious? Well, a new research study suggests that you might benefit from bouldering, which is a form of rock climbing. University of Arizona researchers, Eva-Maria Stelzer and Katharina Luttenberger of the University of Enlangen-Nuremberg, led a team that involved over 100 participants in a therapeutically-oriented intervention that consisted only of bouldering. The key findings revealed differences between the two research groups - one having an immediate intervention, and the other being delayed - and showed a drop in symptoms of depression. The study was conducted in Germany, where this intervention has gained enough steam to become a recommended course of treatment.
For those who are unfamiliar, bouldering differs from sport- or trad- climbing in that the climber works his/her way up a boulder (as the name implies), versus climbing a gigantic rock wall. Also, because of the shorter climbing distance in bouldering, the climber doesn't use ropes, a harness, or other protection with the exception of a "crash pad" which provides a safe landing zone for falls. Bouldering is a physically demanding and usually a very social activity, in which participants gather together to work on "problems" or various routes up the boulder. Those who have participated in bouldering will attest to how supportive the activity is, as fellow climbers, friends, and strangers cheer each other on as they work up the rock. The activity builds physical strength and confidence, as you progress in your abilities and overcome increasingly difficult challenges. The activity requires perseverance and builds resiliency, as bouldering is a constant process of experiencing your limits, and working to overcome them despite the natural anxieties that are part of the experience.
For this study, the participants were randomly split into two groups - one of which immediately began bouldering for three hours a week over the course of eight weeks, while the other group had to wait to start bouldering until a later date. The research team measured the depression of group members at different points in the study using the Beck's Depression Inventory and the depression subscale of the Symptom Check List Revised, known as SCL-90-R.
The key finding of the study was that the immediate intervention group's Beck's Depression scores improved by 6.27 points on average, but for the same time period the group that was initially wait-listed improved by only 1.4 points. This drop in score reflects an improvement of one severity grade from moderate to mild depression levels.
The research team has since expanded the study to compare the outcomes of individuals who participate in a bouldering intervention, to the outcomes of individuals participating in cognitive behavior therapy.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that anxiety disorders, including depression, are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, and that depression is the number one cause of disability worldwide. It is estimated that early 20% of the nation's adult population, or about 40 million people, experience anxiety disorders. However, less than 1/3rd seek professional treatment for their symptoms through a doctor or therapist. Still, it is difficult to say how many might seek support through holistic methods such as mindfulness practices, like meditation or yoga, which have been shown to yield amazing benefits. Some experts have even gone so far as to say that mindfulness practices are the "cornerstone" of recovering from trauma.
Those who have a background in rock climbing will often cite the mindful quality of the sport, as it requires constant focus and determination. It is difficult for your mind to wander or worry about much else when you're focusing on reaching the next hold.
The researchers reported that their own backgrounds as avid rock climbers and boulderers led them investigate the benefits the sport could provide to those dealing with anxiety, depression, social isolation and self-esteem issues.
"Patients enjoyed the bouldering sessions and told us that they benefited greatly," said Luttenberger, a psychometrics expert at the University of Erlangen. "Since rumination is one of the biggest problems for depressed individuals, we had the idea that bouldering could be a good intervention for that."
In addition to the mindful aspects of climbing and bouldering, the physical aspects are also obviously beneficial. Since climbing and bouldering have a wide range of difficulty levels, anyone can participate. If you can climb a ladder, you can begin rock climbing - just head to the local rock climbing gym and try out a 5.6 (for sport or top rope routes), or a V0 (V-Zero) in bouldering, to get started. If you dedicate yourself to regularly participating, you'll find your technique, skill level, physical fitness, strength, courage, and confidence all increase as you go on, and inevitably, you'll make lots of new friends. The social aspects of the sport are not to be underestimated, as folks in the climbing community tend to be warm, fun, gracious, and supportive. Additionally, heading outside to a local climbing crag or bouldering area yields its own benefits, as research shows just being in nature is good for us. With the combination of all of these benefits, it is not surprising that researchers found evidence of the psychological benefits of the activity.
Note: Depression, anxiety, and mental illness are serious medical conditions, and it is highly recommended that anyone experiencing symptoms seek professional support from a licensed therapist or other licensed professional. For those experiencing symptoms, outdoor activities such as bouldering or rock climbing may be a great addition to a treatment regimen, but should not be considered as a replacement. Also, it is not recommended that inexperienced persons participate in rock climbing or bouldering without proper training and mentorship. It is highly recommended that you first visit your local climbing gym, take classes, or find an experienced mentor who can safely introduce you to the sport.