A new study shows that bouldering, a form of rock climbing, can be an effective adjunct to depression treatment.
University of Arizona researcher Eva-Maria Stelzer and Dr. Katharina Luttenberger of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg led a team that involved more than 100 individuals in a bouldering intervention in Germany, where some hospitals have begun to use climbing as a therapeutic treatment.
The participants were randomly split into two groups. One immediately began the intervention, while the other group had to wait to start bouldering, which involves climbing rocks or walls to a moderate height without ropes or a harness.
Each participant bouldered for three hours a week over the course of eight weeks.
The research team measured the depression of group members at different points in the study using the Beck’s Depression Inventory and the depression subscale of the Symptom Check List Revised, known as SCL-90-R.
The researchers found that the immediate intervention group’s Beck’s Depression scores improved by 6.27 points. During the same time period, the group that was initially wait-listed improved by only 1.4 points.
The difference in score reflects an improvement of one severity grade from moderate to mild depression levels, the researchers explained.
Also during the study, both groups were taught about how to cultivate positive social interactions and about meditation and mindfulness throughout the study. All told, the study intervention and follow-up lasted 24 weeks.
“Bouldering, in many ways, is a positive physical activity,” said Stelzer, who began researching the benefits of bouldering while completing her master’s in psychology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and is now completing her doctorate at the UA.
“There are different routes for your physical activity level, and there’s a social aspect, along with the feeling of an immediate accomplishment when bouldering.”
The researchers have expanded the study to compare the bouldering intervention with cognitive behavior therapy involving individuals in Erlangen, Munich and Berlin.
The researchers drew on their own experiences as avid rock climbers and boulderers to investigate the benefits the sport could provide to those dealing with anxiety, depression, social isolation, and self-esteem issues.
“Patients enjoyed the bouldering sessions and told us that they benefited greatly,” said Luttenberger, a psychometrics expert at the University of Erlangen, located just north of Nuremberg in Germany. “Since rumination is one of the biggest problems for depressed individuals, we had the idea that bouldering could be a good intervention for that.”
Most of the patients involved in the study were new to bouldering.
Stelzer added 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,” she said. “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.”
“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 continued.
She added that because many people who are depressed deal with isolation, bouldering as a treatment could bolster physical activity and be used as a social tool allowing people to interact with one another.
Given the positive results, the researchers believe that bouldering may be used to complement traditional care for clinical depression. They are now working to develop a manual that could be adopted for an eight-week program integrating bouldering and psychotherapeutic interventions for groups.
“I’d always encourage patients to do the sport they like, be it climbing or something else, as sport is a wonderful possibility to prevent all possible sorts of illnesses, mental and physical,” Luttenberger said.
Source: University of Arizona