In recent years, many indoor bouldering and sport climbing gyms have opened around the world, allowing more people to have access to climbing facilities and take on the sport as a regular hobby (Helt, 2015). Rock climbing’s popularity has risen by ten percent between the years 1999 and 2009 (Lorite et al, 2017), and is expected to rise by fifty percent by 2050 (Cordell et al, 2012).
Indoor rock-climbing gyms are intensely social environments. There is evidence that sports promote sociability, although to our knowledge that has not been shown in relation to climbing. Heo et al (2018) showed that social integration has positive effects on adults, including enhancing well-being and reducing depression. This was found to be due to rewards such as forming an identity, developing social worlds, and group accomplishment. It is conceivable that climbing could have similar benefits in creating social bonds among participants. There is some evidence that participation in physical exercise has beneficial effects on mental and physical health (Daley, 2008). Gallotta et al (2015) found that a rock climbing intervention was beneficial for anxiety and physical fitness, with a significant decrease in state anxiety during single training sessions. One possible explanation for this according to Gallotta et al (2015) is the distraction hypothesis, which suggests that participation in physical exercise can be a distraction from stressful stimuli and thereby reduces symptoms of mental distress.
Previous research has suggested that rock climbing can induce a sense of accomplishment and thereby enhance a positive mood (Tuson and Sinyor, 1993). This brings to mind the broaden-and-build theory by Frederickson (2001), which proposes that experiencing positive emotions can improve well-being over time. Therefore, as the sense of achievement induced from rock climbing appears to enhance positive emotions (Tuson and Sinyor, 1993), it is conceivable that participating in rock climbing regularly could improve well-being over time. There is also a substantial body of literature supporting the theory of Green Exercise (Glackin and Beale, 2017; Barton et al, 2012; Hansmann et al, 2007). Green Exercise is the notion that conducting physical activity whilst engaging the natural environment has benefits on psychological wellbeing which are significantly greater than the equivalent forms of exercise (Glackin and Beale, 2017). For example, Glackin and Beale (2017) find that cycling whilst engaging with nature enhanced the sense of wellbeing of the participants and helped them to cope with their current mental challenges. There are also research and therapeutic techniques such as nature therapy (Berger, 2020) and eco-therapy (Summers and Vivian, 2018) which use nature to construct a therapeutic setting and process and posit that estrangement from nature can lead to psychological distresses such as depression and anxiety. Eco-therapy also posits that participation in physical exercise and nature play simultaneously can be effective for improving well-being. Park et al (2011) found that subjects reported higher positive emotions in forest areas compared to urban areas, with a decrease found in anxiety, anger, hostility, and fatigue. These results suggest that natural forest environments are beneficial for mental health. These findings can be seen to support the view that rock climbing outdoors improves mental health.
In recent years, rock climbing and bouldering have been implemented into clinical practice, with both activities now being used within the overall treatment plan of individuals with mental health issues. Karg et al (2020) investigated a bouldering psychotherapy program (BPT) by comparing its effects to an exercise program. Bouldering psychotherapy consists of a mix of psychotherapeutic interventions and elements from the field of climbing that are action-oriented. Karg et al (2020) suggest that climbing offers individuals an opportunity to become more active, it can have a positive impact on a person’s self-esteem and it can give individuals a sense of achievement setting up positive reinforcement processes helpful in depression.
The current study aims to explore in-depth the experiences of individuals involved in rock climbing, and to investigate its perceived effects on well-being.
Participants The inclusion criteria for participants was that they had to be members of MUMC, male, of white ethnicity, and between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four years old. All six participants were regular indoors and outdoors rock climbers. Ethical considerations The study followed the British Psychological Society’s conduct and ethics guidelines (British Psychological Society, 2018), and ethical approval was granted by the Department of Psychology Research Ethics Committee via the Ethics Online System (EthOS). Materials The semi-structured interview schedule consisted of open-ended questions which explored the participant’s experiences of rock climbing, their opinions and beliefs towards it, and its benefits both physically and psychologically. Topics addressed included experience of rock climbing, psychological benefits, and socializing in rock climbing. Procedure The participants received a participant’s information sheet (PIS), a consent form, and a protocol form before the interview. Once the participants had read the PIS and protocol and were willing to be a part of the study, they then signed the consent form. Data analysis method The analytical method used on the interview transcripts was thematic analysis as designed by Braun and Clark (2006). Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns within the data, and essentially looks for common themes across data items.
There were four themes identified from thematically analyzing the interview transcripts. (1) the social aspect of rock climbing is beneficial for mental health (2) the problem-solving process in rock climbing is beneficial for mental health (3) keeping physically healthy through rock climbing makes climbers feel mentally positive (4) rock climbing in a natural environment is beneficial for mental health. The contents of the themes are now described and explained. The social aspect of rock climbing is beneficial for mental health Participants reported that rock climbing allows individuals to meet and talk to new people, which can help relieve feelings of isolation and improve mood. Specifically, indoor climbing gyms are a place where people can discuss and complete set climbing routes, facilitating the creation of new friendships. Therefore, the social environment at indoor climbing gyms is beneficial for individuals with mental health issues.
Participant E: “I think a lot of people with mental health issues might feel quite isolated in some way or another. I think climbing is a social sport, especially indoors. I think you will meet a lot of people for the first time, not knowing them, and just happily chat and discuss problems and work together. I think for someone who’s feeling quite isolated, that could be really beneficial”.
Participant E: “I got them climbing and then I think they were much happier because then all of a sudden when they were bored, they could always just go to the center and climb and meet other people … I think they really enjoyed being able to go climbing and meet people in a better environment like that”.
Participants described how there is a lot of encouragement and support between rock climbers when climbing routes and improving, which induces positive emotions and therefore improves well-being. Participants said this is an aspect that is not found in many other activities.
Participant D: “Everyone’s trying to help each other improve and still have a laugh whilst doing it. It does feel like quite a nice supportive thing with everyone helping each other out, which maybe you don’t get with just hanging out with your mates.”
Participants discussed that there is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that is shared between climbers when they are climbing together. So, if one person is successful then others will feel happy for them, and this makes climbers feel mentally positive.
Participant F: “You do get a group satisfaction out of climbing. So, if you are with a group of mates climbing indoors or outdoors and one of your mates completes something they’ve been trying for a long time, that mentally makes you happy.”
Participants also discussed how the rock climbing community helps them achieve a sense of identity. This can help with the individual’s sense of belonging and thereby improve well-being.
Participant B: “You are confident in who you are because it gives you more of an identity. You are a climber, it’s a lifestyle.”
Participant A: “It doesn’t matter particularly what skill level you are, there’s this sort of invisible community … there’s always a friendly face, which is good. It’s nice to know that you are not alone out there.”
The problem-solving process in rock climbing is beneficial for mental health Participants discussed that the problem-solving process involved in rock climbing can improve their well-being. One participant reported that participating in rock climbing distracts the mind from negative thoughts as it requires concentration to figure out which moves are needed to complete the climb. This can make individuals feel less negative and therefore mentally better.
Participant A: “It takes your mind off things because your brain is concentrating on problem-solving… it’s just you and the rock and you are concentrating, and all of those negative thoughts go out of your head immediately.”
Participant B: “With all my mates you can see that when anyone is having a hard time with anything if you go rock climbing then it’s just forgotten at that moment. It helps everyone who does it.”
Participant E: “I think it’s really nice to be able to get out of that environment and just completely clear your head, by climbing away from everything else. When you’re climbing, you’re just completely immersed in that. You don’t and you can’t think of anything else. I think that’s really beneficial.”
Participants also reported that succeeding in the problem-solving process and finishing a climb induces a sense of achievement. This makes the climber feel positive in themselves which improves well-being.
Participant C: “Obviously when you do manage to do a climb that you’re trying to do, there’s that satisfaction. You feel like you’ve tried hard at something, and you’ve really achieved something. You feel like you’re developing yourself, which makes you feel satisfied when you do it”.
Participant A: “It was just me on my own and bouldering in a gym and having no one there to teach me how to do it or having no one there to show me the right or wrong way, so I had to figure it out by myself. It was difficult, but looking back on it I’m happy I did that by myself.”
Keeping physically healthy through rock climbing makes climbers feel mentally positive Participants reported that rock climbing makes them feel happy as it is physical exercise that creates endorphins in the body, making them feel good. They also say that rock climbing keeps them healthy and active generally, which makes them feel happier also.
Participant C: “On just the chemical level when you do sports, you get endorphins and you’re happier. Also, simply the fact that you are staying active and not just staying at home is going to make you happier as well. I definitely believe that if you are healthier then you are more likely to be happy and climbing definitely does allow that.”
Participant E: “Psychologically, I suppose it’s the same with of all sorts of sports. I think it benefits you mentally by going out and exercising and doing something sporty …. healthy body, healthy mind.”
Participants also discussed how rock climbing makes them feel more positive as it improves their self-esteem because they feel physically healthy.
Participant D: “In a general sense, keeping physically fit through climbing is probably good for your mental health in terms of self-esteem. I always feel better in myself when I’m feeling fit compared to when I’m not.”
Participant B: “It definitely gives you a more positive body image. You feel healthier, so you look at yourself in a more positive light.”
Rock climbing in a natural environment is beneficial for mental health Climbing outdoors takes climbers to natural environments, which participants report improves their well-being. First, participants discussed how going rock climbing outdoors allows them to be in a natural environment and out of the city, and this is beneficial for their mental health.
Participant B: “It also gets you out in the outdoors, which is always great for your mental health.”
Participant E: “Climbing outdoors gets you out of the urban environment that most people live in. I think it’s nice to spend a day outside with your mates and the climbing is very different, and it definitely helps you to take your mind off things. I think that’s really beneficial.”
Participant F: “Going to a nice place and being with your mates, being in really good scenery …. makes you happy. I feel better when I’m out the city and I’m in nature. I feel like it’s nice to feel away from it all for a bit.”
Participants also discussed that they feel a sense of adventure when climbing outdoors, as it takes them to places that they would not have gone if they did not rock climb. This makes them feel good psychologically.
Participant D: “There is definitely much more of an adventurous side, especially with traditional climbing. Getting into awesome places and feeling that sense of awe. Interacting with the natural environment and the elements and getting to travel as well is much more connected to outdoor rock climbing. It’s just a lot more involved and it is really what I am motivated by. Climbing outside is what I like doing much more than indoors. I think for me, I start feeling pretty cooped up psychologically if I don’t get out often, even if I’ve gone a week or so without going outside. I definitely feel a lot calmer, more level, and happy about life when I am going climbing outside a lot.”
The most prominent theme was that the social aspect of rock climbing is beneficial for mental health. Participants discussed that one social aspect within rock climbing which improves well-being is the social environment found at indoor climbing gyms. Other reasons were the encouragement found between climbers, the shared sense of accomplishment between climbers, and the sense of identity found within the climbing community. These findings coincide with previous studies which suggest social integration within the sport has positive effects on adults, including enhancing well-being and reducing depression (Heo et al, 2001; Misener, Doherty, & Hamm-Kerwin, 2010; Windsor, Anstey, & Rodgers, 2008).
The second major theme was that the problem-solving process in rock climbing is beneficial for mental health. Participants suggested that rock climbing distracts the mind from negative thoughts. This finding supports the distraction hypothesis (Gallotta et al, 2015; Petruzzello, et al, 1991) which provides that participating in physical exercise can be a distractor from stressful stimuli. Furthermore, the study showed that the problem-solving process needed for completing a climb induces a sense of accomplishment, making individuals feel positive and so enhances their well-being. This finding supports previous research that showed that rock climbing can induce a sense of accomplishment and thereby increase positive mood (Tuson and Sinyor, 1993).
The third theme was that keeping physically healthy through rock climbing makes climbers feel mentally positive. Participants discussed the possible physiological mechanisms by which climbing improves their mood and self-esteem. These results agree with the findings of Karg et al (2020) who also showed participation in climbing activities can have a positive impact on an individual’s self-esteem.
The fourth theme that emerged from the data was that rock climbing in a natural environment is beneficial for mental health. Participants discussed that climbing allows them to escape to a natural environment which is beneficial for their mental health and that there is a sense of adventure found in climbing outdoors which makes them feel positive. These findings support previous studies’ findings that engaging in physical exercise in a natural environment improves mental health (Park et al (2011), Glackin and Beale, 2017; Barton et al, 2012; Hansmann et al, 2007). The finding that climbing in a natural environment is beneficial for mental health can also be viewed to support the idea of including climbing as part of a therapy regime to improve mental health, such as nature therapy (Berger, 2020) and ecotherapy (Summers and Vivian, 2018).
To conclude, the current research provides evidence that rock climbing is beneficial for mental health due to social interaction, problem-solving, physical fitness, and contact with the natural environment. This study furthers previous relevant studies by identifying which aspects of rock climbing are most beneficial, which could be useful when using rock climbing as part of a therapeutic method. This evidence can be used to encourage therapeutic methods using rock climbing, or even to advise patients with mental health issues to take part in the sport.
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