/ ARTICLE: Bouldering as Treatment for Depression - A Study

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UKC Articles - on 12 Jun 2017
Bouldering: a modern therapy for depression, 4 kbA recent study by the University of Arizona suggests that bouldering could be an effective treatment for depression in adults. Climber and researcher Eva-Maria Stelzer and her colleagues discovered that the physical, mental and social elements of bouldering successfully alleviated symptoms of depression and acted as a form of psychotherapy.

UKC sent Eva-Maria some questions to find out more about her intervention and where she sees her work heading in the future...

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Doug on 12 Jun 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

I'm sure bouldering helps some, possibly more in mild depression, but when I was very depressed I found it difficult to climb at all although friends encouraged me a lot. I suspect that the anti-depressants I took had an effect on my balance which didn't help so failing to climb problems I previously could have done easily didn't help my confidence. At my worst, I found walking on moors or in forests, either alone or in a very small group was the best outdoor activity. The thought of going to a crowded indoor wall would have horrified me
Tm4130 - on 12 Jun 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

Not to take anything away from climbing, but there are numerous studies that indicate that any 'sport' can be an effective treatment for depression... Release of happy endorphins when going for a run etc.

Not sure another study was necessary but why not....crack on
Clare Dean on 12 Jun 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

The intervention also included mindfulness and 'pyschoeduation' exercises. I would be interested to read how the researchers could be sure that the improvement seen in the subjects was due specifically to the bouldering and not due, at least in part, to the other aspects of the intervention. More information on the control group might serve to answer this.
Cary Grant on 12 Jun 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

As a climber and mental health professional with lived experience I would say there is something unique about bouldering that is beneficial to mental health and is succinctly captured in the brief summary of the study:

"'Since rumination is one of the biggest problems for depressed individuals, we had the idea that bouldering could be a good intervention for that.' [...] Stelzer explained that bouldering has a number of other important characteristics that make it especially beneficial for the treatment of depression, namely that it helps boost self-efficacy and social interactions — both of which hold innate benefits for dealing with depression. "You have to be mindful and focused on the moment. It does not leave much room to let your mind wonder on things that may be going on in your life — you have to focus on not falling," Stelzer said. "Bouldering not only has strong mental components, but it is accessible at different levels so that people of all levels of physical health are able to participate," she said."

Of course other features will complicate the picture and it is by no means going to be a magic bullet, but the study opens up the possibility of more alternatives to drug treatments and psychotherapy that can often be difficult and counterproductive for some people. From a community perspective it would be wonderful to see the private spaces of climbing walls (private sector as opposed to exclusive) become part of the broader community landscape.
For me it is the 'in the moment' thing of climbing that I find so immersive and relaxing (ankle sprains, loss of skin, flappers and the fingers of perpetual pain are, in their own way, quite relaxing for me).
Of course there may well be contraindications: obsessive behaviour leading to a slight distortion in reality whereby walls, door frames and just about any structure over three meters is assessed for climbability. But the distillation of all potential problems in life to a grade and the mantra of "what could possibly go wrong" will surely offset any minor slide into climbing obsession!
edhawk21 - on 12 Jun 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

When you suck as much as I do, bouldering tends to demoralize haha
teomalchio on 12 Jun 2017
In reply to edhawk21:

yes, me too... Those pesky kids strolling on routes I can't even think of approaching... so ashamed...
Pilo on 12 Jun 2017
In reply to

All these roped climbers telling me bouldering is depressing, ha ha to them they were wrong it's the cure, look here's the scientific proof. Obviously. Does this mean that the 40 million people on anti depressants in America will be told to go bouldering? Take cover Mr.Big pharmacore drug lord won't be liking that idea. We have to sell those godamn pills you fools.
Jon Stewart - on 12 Jun 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

I can see how in some circumstances as in the study, introducing people to indoor bouldering in a specific, therapeutic way could be helpful to some people. But for a jaded old climber like me, going indoor bouldering to a busy, sweaty wall, with bad music on, filled with people I half-know who I feel obliged to make small-talk with was never a therapeutic experience. I had to tell myself that it was probably better than not going, even though it was difficult to make it through more than half an hour of half-heartedly trying some problems while resisting the urge to just leave and be on my own.

Even going bouldering outside, when it's cold and you've climbed everything in your capabilities at your local venues about a thousand times already becomes a painful exercise in going through the motions, and doesn't feel anything like having fun if you're depressed.

Obviously, trying to treat a depressed, jaded old climber like me with bouldering is a different matter to what's being studied here - but I think the patients would have to be picked very carefully in terms of personality and physical capability to get some degree of success to get good results.

slab_happy on 13 Jun 2017
In reply to Tm4130:


"When we included only the six trials (464 participants) with adequate allocation concealment, intention-to-treat analysis and blinded outcome assessment, the pooled SMD for this outcome was not statistically significant (-0.18, 95% CI -0.47 to 0.11). Pooled data from the eight trials (377 participants) providing long-term follow-up data on mood found a small effect in favour of exercise (SMD -0.33, 95% CI -0.63 to -0.03)."

Basically, there are numerous studies but a lot of them are a bit shit in methodological terms, and when you look at the more robust studies, you find a small effect (or none).

Doesn't mean it can't be helpful, but it's certainly not proven as an "effective treatment". So yes, more studies *are* necessary.
koalapie - on 14 Jun 2017
In reply to slab_happy:

Couple of more recent meta-analyses in the context of depression and exercise;



Paul Sagar - on 29 Jun 2017
In reply to UKC Articles:

Anecdotally at least, I can offer some confirmation of the strong link between bouldering and mental health improvement.

I've suffered from depression my entire adult life, and took up climbing about 3 years ago. Although no silver bullet, bouldering in particular I've often found to be a very helpful tool in coping to episodes. On the one hand there are the benefits of doing any exercise that help with depression, but the hyothesis that bouldering (I'd say route climbing too) is especially effective because it prevents rumination is absolutely correct. One of my biggest problems during depressive episodes is being unable to get out of the loop of my own negative thoughts. Climbing problems just stops that dead, at least for a couple of hours. The relief that delivers is sometimes hugely significant. And the sociable aspect of climbing - rather than being stuck at home staring at the wall - is massively real.

More recently, I've found that progressing into climbing as a serious hobby - i.e. Committed training, outdoor trips, the mixed virtues of grade chasing - have been hugely beneficial for me in turn. Because I now put my neurotic energies into climbing instead of work (or worse, drink or drugs). My girlfriend gets annoyed at how obsessive I now am about climbing - but as I said to her last week, it's better than crack!

Climbing hasn't "cured" my depression. I still need medication, and will do my whole life. But it's helped the medication go far further than it did on its own. This won't be the case for everyone - but it has been the case for me.

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