Could Bouldering Help Fight Depression?

by Ronnie Charrier


On top of building strength and improving mental focus, bouldering helps boost self-efficacy and social interactions, both important characteristics that are beneficial in the treatment of depression, according to a new study by the University of Arizona.

Researchers Eva-Maria Stelzer, a doctoral student at UA, and Katharina Luttenberger, a doctor in human biology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (Germany), recruited more than 100 individuals for a bouldering intervention experiment in Germany as part of a larger study. (There is a growing number of German hospitals that have begun to use rock climbing as a therapeutic treatment)

The researchers believe the physical aspect of bouldering, combined with its social side and the concentration involved are behind its benefits for the mental health disorder. “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.”

Most of the participants for this study were new to bouldering. The participants were divided into two groups and would boulder at least three hours a week over the course of eight weeks. While one half of the individuals would begin bouldering immediately, the other half had to wait before they began their rock climbing regimen. 

Using the Beck Depression Inventory and the SCL-90-R to measure depressions levels throughout the study, the researchers found that the group that immediately began bouldering improved their scores on the Beck Depression Inventory by 6.27 points over the course of the study, while the group that was instructed to wait only saw a 1.4 point improvement.

“Patients enjoyed the bouldering sessions and told us that they benefited greatly,” says Luttenberger. “Since rumination is one of the biggest problems for depressed individuals, we had the idea that bouldering could be a good intervention for that.”

Adds Stelzer: “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.”

In addition to the eight-week “climbing intervention”, Stelzer and Luttenberger also worked with the individuals in teaching them about meditation, mindfulness, and how to cultivate “positive social interactions.”

Given the positive results, the team members are now working to develop a manual that could be adopted for an eight-week program integrating bouldering and psychotherapeutic interventions for groups.

“I hope this study and future studies are able to impact a life,” Stelzer said. “Even though a variety of treatment options exist, less than one-third of people receive treatment for their symptoms.”

When you consider that 18% of American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, including depression, this study presents an exciting new intervention that could help millions.