Depression Treatment Found in Bouldering

Last modified: August 2, 2019

Richard Honaker M.D.
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Staying active is known to be one way to battle depression. An unlikely treatment option found in bouldering rock climbing.

One form of rock climbing called bouldering is performed without any use of tools like ropes or harnesses. This specific activity, according to a growing body of research, is stated to be of help in building muscle endurance while also reducing stress. Now, a new study co-led by a doctoral student of psychology at the University of Arizona suggests that bouldering may also be used as an effective treatment of symptoms of depression.

Research on Depression and Bouldering

Eva-Maria Stelzer, researcher from the University of Arizona and Katharina Luttenberger from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg led a team involving over 100 individuals in a bouldering intervention in Germany. There, some hospitals are already using climbing as a therapeutic treatment.

The participants were indiscriminately divided into two groups. One group immediately began the intervention, while the other group had to wait before they could start with bouldering. Each of them had to finish a three hour per week bouldering activities. The course lasted for eight weeks.

Related: Coping with Depression for Women: 5 Common Myths

The research team used the Beck’s Depression Inventory and the depression subscale of the Symptom Check List Revised (SCL-90-R) to measure the depression of the group members at different points in the study.

The team found that during the therapy, the immediate intervention group’s scores improved by 6.27 points and the group that had to wait improved by only 1.4 points. The decrease in score reflected an improvement of their severity grade from moderate to mild depression levels.


Benefits of Bouldering Valid for Treatment

According to Stelzer, bouldering is a positive physical activity. She actually began researching the benefits of bouldering while she was finishing her master’s in psychology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. She is now finishing her doctorate at the University of Arizona. She also said that there are different paths for the level of your physical activity. There’s also a social aspect coupled with the feeling of immediate accomplishment when you are bouldering. She will be presenting the study and its findings at the 29th annual Association for Psychological Science Convention to be held this weekend in Boston.

University of Erlangen-Nuremberg researchers are also involved in the study aside from Stelzer and Luttenberger. They are Stefan Forst, Elmar Grabel, Matthias Schopper, Johannes Kornhuber, and Stephanie Book. The team has even expanded their study to compare bouldering intervention with cognitive behaviour therapy which involves individuals in Erlangen, Munich, and Berlin.

Stelzer also said that since depression is a severe illness that has become one of the most common mental disorders in the US and worldwide she hopes their study and other future studies are able to have an impact on someone’s life. She also stated that despite having a myriad of treatment options for depression that are available right now, only less than one third of people actually receive treatment for their symptoms.

Related: Coping with Depression and Anxiety During Pregnancy

40 Million People Cope with Anxiety and Depression Disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders including depression are the most common mental illnesses in the US. Around 18 percent of the country’s adult population or around 40 million people cope with anxiety disorders.

Stelzer, Luttenberger, and Schopper who are avid rock climbers and boulderers themselves investigated the benefits that the sport can provide to people who are dealing with anxiety, depression, social isolation, and self-esteem issues. Patients have told them that they enjoyed the bouldering sessions and that they have greatly benefited from the sessions. And since consideration and deliberation are big problems for depressed people, the team thought that bouldering can be a good intervention. Most of the participants involved were new to bouldering.  

Both groups in the study were also taught how to develop positive social interactions, meditation, and mindfulness. The duration that involved the intervention and the follow-up lasted 24 weeks.

According to Stelzer, bouldering has other important characteristics that make it very beneficial for the treatment of depression. It helps increase self-efficacy and social interactions. These two have intrinsic benefits for dealing with depression. And since the participants have to be mindful and focus on the moment, there’s not much room for them to let their mind wonder on things that are happening in their lives. They just focus on not falling.

Related: Am I Depressed? Depression in Women Explained

Aside from having strong mental components, bouldering is also accessible at different levels so people of different levels of physical health can participate. And because people who suffer from depression deal with isolation, bouldering as a treatment doesn’t just increase physical activity but can also be used as a tool to allow interaction with one another.

Positive Results for Mental Illness

With the study’s positive results, the team believes that bouldering may actually be used to accompany traditional care and treatment for clinical depression. Members of the team are currently working on developing a manual that could be embraced for an eight-week program combining bouldering and pychotherapeutic intervention for groups.

There’s not just one perfect treatment for all mental illnesses. It will depend on the type and severity of the illness and on the individual himself. Treatment may be effective for one patient but not on another. So, whether it is climbing or something else always encourage patients to do the sport that they like. Sport is a great opportunity that can help prevent almost all possible types of illnesses be it mental or physical. Treatment will become more effective and enjoyable.

dr-richard-honakerRichard A. Honaker, M.D. — Chief Medical Advisor at YourDoctors.Online

Join Dr. Honaker June 22nd for a webinar on Depression & Anxiety, presented exclusively by YourDoctors.Online. For information, kindly register and join us via our webinar signup. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to get more details on Dr. Honaker’s discussion, and learn more about our new membership program. 


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Submitted by Dr. Richard Honaker:

Disclaimer: This article provides general information and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or medical condition. If you require specific advice, please consult one of our medical professionals through the app. However, in case of an emergency, please call 911.

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