Climbing as Therapy: What Research Shows

"Therapeutic bouldering for depression"? Yes — bouldering therapy is a thing! A 2015 research study of 47 participants showed that 8 weeks of bouldering therapy improved depression scores. This study is the first to suggest the therapeutic effects of bouldering on depression.

Depression is a common and prevalent disease that does not discriminate. Depression therapy can include antidepressant (medication) treatment, psychotherapy, and exercise (physical activity). Studies on physical activity on depression showed that this approach is most effective when done in a group and performed regularly. Physical activities studied included aerobics or walking. Bouldering is a discipline that combines the physical and social aspects of activity and requires a high level of concentration. In fact, some hospitals in Germany already use rock climbing as a therapy.

Participants with confirmed depression diagnoses were split into "intervention" or "wait-list" groups. Patients were excluded if they were hospitalized (in-patient treatment), experiencing acute suicidality or psychosis, or are not medical cleared to rock climb. The “intervention” group began therapeutic bouldering while the “wait-list” group received their regular, non-bouldering, depression treatment for 8 weeks. Patients were tracked on depression scores every 2 weeks.

One of the key reasons why these researchers chose bouldering as a potential exercise-based intervention for depression is that bouldering focuses on many mental aspects in a climber. This — and the researchers are also avid rock climbers. There were 8 total group sessions that were conducted at a local climbing gym. Each session was 3 hours each. In addition to bouldering, each session covered specific topics ranging from "Old habits – new ways" to "Expectation versus experience" to "Self efficacy" and "Fear and trust." At the end of 8 weeks, the bouldering group showed improvement in their depression symptoms that matched the group receiving their depression treatment (whichever non-climbing treatment they were receiving), see Figure below.

As a person who has suffered from clinical depression for many years, I personally attest to the benefits that climbing has had on my own mental health. Climbing allows me to focus on the "problem" I am working on, and as I began climbing harder problems, I have learned that failing and falling are a very common experiences. Like everything in life, "practice makes easier" (I don’t believe in perfection), and rock climbing teaches me all the ways I can fail and fall every time I get on the wall.

When I am on the wall, I focus on what I am doing and my constantly-chatting mind shuts up for a few minutes. This is one of the many reasons why rock climbing has become my main method of moving meditation.

I have also learned that my "short-person beta" can be different from someone else’s (taller person) beta, and that there are often more than 1 beta or solution to each problem. And yes — I deal with fear often as a boulderer, learning to distinguish reasonable fears (threat of real physical injury due to falling or unsafe moves) versus unreasonable fears (fear of looking silly in front of other climbers). One unexpected lesson I had learned from climbing is how hard I can be on myself: I am very encouraging of other climbers when they attempt difficult boulder problems, yet I have a tendency to mentally “beat myself up” when I fail at a difficult problem. Getting practice encouraging others is teaching me to be more encouraging to myself.

A key factor to draw from this study is the "group" aspect. We tend to isolate ourselves when depressed, and bouldering as a group help neutralize some of the negative effects of self-isolation. This is the reason why I appreciate climbing gyms that offer group-based activities. Being a member of a positive and encouraging community is an aspect I value in climbing.

This article also syndicated at SenderOne.

Citation: "Indoor rock climbing (bouldering) as a new treatment for depression: study design of a waitlist-controlled randomized group pilot study and the first results." Luttenberger et al. BMC Psychiatry (2015) 15:201. DOI 10.1186/s12888-015-0585-8.