More than 15 million adults in the United States are affected by depression, making it one of the most common mental health disorders in the country. But a new study suggests that there may be a surprising way to help combat this debilitating condition: bouldering.
Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that does not include the use of harnesses or ropes. The sport often involves low-level climbing, but with complicated routes.
Study co-leader Eva-Maria Stelzer, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, and colleagues found that adults with depression who took part in bouldering for 8 weeks experienced significant improvements in symptoms of the condition.
The researchers recently presented their findings at the 29th Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention, held in Boston, MA.
Depression is a generally defined as a condition characterized by feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness that persist for at least 2 weeks. Symptoms may also include feelings of guilt, worthlessness, fatigue, problems concentrating, and thoughts of death or suicide.
For the most part, individuals who receive treatment for depression – through medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both – make a full recovery. However, statistics suggest that only a third of patients with severe depression actively seek treatment.
For their study, Stelzer and colleagues set out to investigate whether bouldering might have a beneficial impact for people with symptoms of depression.
“Bouldering, in many ways, is a positive physical activity,” says Stelzer. “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 study included more than 100 adults from Germany who were randomly allocated to one of two groups. One group immediately started bouldering, while the other group had to wait to start the sport.
Both groups took part in bouldering for 3 hours per week for a total of 8 weeks, and the majority of participants were new to the sport.
At various points throughout the study, the severity of depressive symptoms among participants was assessed using the Beck’s Depression Inventory and the Symptom Check List Revised.
The researchers found that the participants who immediately began bouldering experienced a 6.27-point improvement in Beck’s Depression scores. For the same time period, however, the group that waited to boulder only showed a 1.4-point improvement.
According to the team, the improvement in the Beck’s Depression score seen in the immediate bouldering group represents a change in depression severity from moderate to mild.
Stelzer notes that bouldering requires high levels of concentration, which is likely what makes the sport beneficial for people with depression, given that rumination is a problem for such individuals.
“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,” she explains.
All in all, the team believes that bouldering might be a beneficial addition to current treatments for individuals with depression, and it may even help people with other mental health disorders.
“I’d always encourage patients to do the sport they like – may it be climbing or something else – as sport is a wonderful possibility to prevent all possible sorts of illnesses, mental and physical.”
Study co-leader Katharina Luttenberger, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany