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Get Psyched: A Look at Climbing’s Effects on Mood

Climbing is already used in certain countries as a tool to treat clinical depression---but this psychology student hopes to prove that everyone can benefit emotionally from moving on the wall.

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Ever feel more positive after a climbing session? Ever enter the climbing gym feeling completely fed up up with work/your significant other/your lack of a significant other/the entire world, but felt much better afterwards? In the past three years of climbing, I’ve experienced this kind of thing myself and have heard much the same from many of my climbing partners.

A common trope is that climbing benefits our mood because of the high level of concentration it requires—you have to focus entirely on climbing when you’re on the wall, leaving little available emotional or mental bandwidth to worry about other non-climbing problems.

[Also Read Climbing Research: What’s New From 2018]

In Germany, where I’m originally from, climbing has been introduced in some psychiatric hospitals as a form of therapy. A scientific study found that bouldering effectively reduces depression. However, to date, no one has studied how climbing can improve mood in non-clinical populations. Why not, I thought? Many scientific studies have been done on other sports, such as running or yoga, mostly finding that exercise benefits peoples’ moods. However, no one has yet quantified the positive mood effects of climbing.

So I set out to address this gap. I’m currently doing my PhD in Psychology and have a strong interest in scientific psychological research. I started climbing at the same time as I started my PhD. Combining the two seems a natural choice for me.

So, on one afternoon in October 2018, I distributed a short 16-item mood-questionnaire to 16 volunteers at Redpoint, an the indoor climbing center in Birmingham, U.K. I asked the respondents to fill in the questionnaire before and after their climbing sessions.

An analysis of the responses showed that participants felt much more positive after a climbing session. I took a closer look at the data and found that there seemed to be differences between students and non-students. The latter—mainly members of a local climbing club, and working full-time jobs—seemed to experience larger improvements in their mood compared to the students.  To verify this finding, I did another statistical analysis, separating the students and non-students. Indeed, for students, there were no significant differences before and after the climbing session.

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This does not mean that the students were unenthusiastic climbers, just that their mood was already very positive prior to the climbing session, and stayed that way throughout. In contrast, for non-students there were significant differences in their moods before and after the climbing session, suggesting that climbing lifted their moods.

There are many possible explanations for these differences. For example, I conducted the study in the beginning of the new term, when students returned to university or started university with already uplifted moods. Additionally, this study was conducted on a Wednesday afternoon, the only day in the week where Birmingham university student clubs head to Redpoint. Usually, they arrive by 2:00 p.m., meaning that they hadn’t had a full day at university prior to going climbing; in contrast, non-students filled in the questionnaire in the evening, after a long working day.

Despite using a small sample and having no control group, this study suggests that climbing can be an effective way to relax after a stressful day. These results are good news for the whole climbing community. This study might be relevant to psychologists, therapists, climbing coaches and climbers alike. It shows the importance of using climbing as an intervention for mood enhancement and well-being improvement.

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