The lichen-stained granite fingers of the Needles, in the southern Sierra Nevada of California, rise menacingly out of the tall conifers that flank the spiny ridge. But for pro climber Ethan Pringle, it’s on the hard, sustained trad routes that run up these rocks that he feels most at peace.
“You’re just 100 percent focused and present and attentive for 20, 30, 40 minutes at a time,” he says, “It’s just so hard to get that in day-to-day life.”
Everyday life for Pringle, 31, is more difficult emotionally. “I’ve definitely struggled with self-hate issues—I still do from time-to-time,” he said. “When I look back at the last few months of my life, the periods of time in which I felt really good and didn't dwell on things were the periods of time where I was on a road trip, outside every day and climbing every day.”
New research lends scientific muscle to Pringle’s—and many climbers’—experience on the rock. In fact, the studies suggest that climbing may be viable as a therapy for depression patients.
Many studies have linked exercise to improvements in mood and mental health. It might even be as effective as antidepressants or talking therapies. However, there was little research that focused on climbing.
Eva-Maria Stelzer, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, had a feeling climbing was more than just fun. At the end of a long, busy day at work, she says, her and her coworkers' minds “become clear and relaxed” while climbing. For her, it was different than going for a run, where she found her mind was restless, going over to-do lists and appointments.
“But you never know if your personal instinct is right,” she says, so she set out to test her hypothesis: Can climbing be used to benefit mental health?
Stelzer and Katharina Luttenberger, of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, led a pair of studies totaling 100 people, most of whom were new to climbing, in a bouldering intervention. The team recruited patients from two psychiatric hospitals in Erlangen, Germany. Half of the group started the 8-week treatment immediately, while the other half had to wait. Both groups attended mindfulness classes. Before, during, and at the end of the treatment, Stelzer used a questionnaire-based inventory to assess their levels of depression. At the start, they averaged a moderate level of depression.
The patients climbed for three hours a week. Before each gym session, they met for a class about a mental health topic, such as managing anxiety or trust building. Then, after climbing, they met again to talk about how they felt during their time on the wall, and how they might apply any lessons learned to their day to day lives.
At the end of the eight weeks, the boulderers had a much greater improvement in their depression score—on average, their scores improved from moderate to mild. Stelzer and her team reported the results of their first study in the journal BMC Psychiatry. (The other study is not yet published.)
Holly Blake, a psychologist at the University of Nottingham in England, calls bouldering a “novel approach” to group-based therapies, and says the study is a first step to understanding if bouldering is clinically effective. The results, in the short-term, rival other exercise interventions, but she cautions that “these are not definitive findings, for which a much larger randomized clinical trial would be required.”
Still, some hospitals in Germany are already using bouldering interventions. There’s more research to be done, but Stelzer thinks bouldering—and climbing in general—is unique for a few reasons. For one, it requires mindfulness, which can break people out of negative thought cycles, which can reinforce depression. Social support is a big part of climbing too, and the sport can also grant an immediate sense of accomplishment upon completing a route or challenging move. These three aspects have all been found, in other studies, to improve depression.
But sometimes, Pringle adds, it’s different for those who have been climbing longer. “With bouldering I can go out, I can warm up on three boulder problems, and go cling to my project half a dozen times, and then be like, That was such a waste of time. Now I feel like shit because I have reverse progress.”
“I can turn it into something that my ego is riding upon,” he says. “It can be an excuse to talk down to myself.”
Overall, the results of the bouldering intervention have been positive. Stelzer just completed a manual in German for use by psychologists interested in launching similar programs. She’s now working on an English translation of the manual, and says she’s already been contacted by an American psychologist. Currently, she says, there’s nothing quite like the intervention available in the U.S., apart from wilderness therapies that only include a relatively small climbing portion.
It’s not intended to replace existing treatments, but, Stelzer says, “it makes sense to use bouldering or rock climbing to complement traditional care.”