We know that sports and physical activity in general are good for your brain but is there any specific benefits to the brain from the sport itself? We looked at the brain benefits of rock climbing, a sport that appears to be about as brawny as it gets.
Why rock climbing is good for your brain
Any form of physical activity is good for the brain because physical activity in general improves circulation and jumpstarts neurogenesis. Rock climbing, howevever, offers an added bonus. As a sport, it is an intense mental game.
The Mental Puzzle
Mention rock climbing and few people will even consider the mental aspects of climbing. But rock climbing is a sport that is equal parts mental, physical and technical. Climbing a route on the wall requires more than brute strength. It also requires:
- decision making
- problem solving
- spatial awareness
Rock climbing is a vertical problem that climbers need to work out – what to hold, where to step, how to balance the body, where to rest, and so on. A good rock climber plans ahead and studies the route before ever climbing it – for example, should I go through the crack (more technical) or through the overhang (more powerful)?
The Internal Challenge
When climbing one is competing against gravity, time, fatigue, and the mind. Everything is against those who wish to master stone. Yet that is one thing which separates climbers mentally from the rest of us. They wish to master the stone… the rest of us, want to win. Athletes and those who compete in everyday life have egos that must be satisfied. These egos may lead to “aggression which can be misused to injure an opponent just to win a game or better oneself in life”. Such athletes may be ego-oriented, whereas climbers are task-oriented. In other words, climbers climb “to intrinsically increase their level of physical competence through task mastery. Task mastery is accomplished through individual practice” and with this practice comes the physical and mental battles that climbers must over come. – Myles Moser, The Psychophysiology of a Rock Climber
Although Moser’s perspective may be a little too simplistic, it is true that for many climbers, the goals of the sports are largely personal. Rock climbing is a sport where your real competitor is yourself. It requires a lot of internal reflection which is important for personal development. This is a skill that translates across to many other areas of our lives.
Facing Your Fear
Climbing is a sport that requires you to move away from the security and safety of the ground (or your last protection – the anchor that keeps your rope attached to the rock face). Every move forward is a conscious decision to step out of your comfort zone. Learning to manage that fear is something we all need to do if we truly wish to be successful in life. Rock climbing offers a natural practice ground to hone that skill.
As Tina Gardner of the BMC says:
It’s natural to be scared of heights. Instinct tells us that falling from a high place will hurt. Respecting that fear keeps you alive. You don’t want to lose that fear completely. Over time, climbers simply learn to manage it.
Rock climbing is a strenuous sport that is physically demanding. It requires the climber to control how much energy is expended at each part of the route so that there is enough reserve to get to the end. The feeling of fatigue is a common sensation that climbers need to battle in their minds as it also heightens the fear and makes it difficult for the brain to maintain focus and concentration on the task at hand. Being able to think straight when you’re tired and scared is definitely a good skill to cultivate for life in general.
The Mind-Body Connection
We’ve written previously about the Mind-Body Connection and how movement of the body affects the development of the brain and how the brain affects what the body can do and round and round it goes. Rock climbing, which requires body awareness – motor skills, spatial awareness and hand-body coordination – helps to reinforce this connection.
Being Focussed on the Present
We live in a world of distractions and staying focussed on the present can be a real challenge for many of us who are stuck to our smart phones with their social media, text messages, and what not. One of the ways to combat the scattered brain is to practice mindfulness – which is also good for the brain in many ways. Since practicing mindfulness is about being fully conscious of the “now”, any activity that requires us to maintain sustained attention on the “now” is essentially a form of mindfulness practice. Rock climbing certainly does that because a distracted mind could mean the difference between staying on the wall and falling off it.
Recently, we read a study about how proprioceptive activities and exercise boosts working memory. Well, rock climbing is about as proprioceptive as it gets – it is a continuous motion of pushing and pulling on numerous joints in the body all at the same time.
The data indicated that active, healthy adults who undertook acute, proprioceptively demanding training improved working memory scores compared to the classroom and yoga groups. – Alloway & Alloway (June, 2015)
Rock Climbing for Special Needs
- Children with ASD retain more information if they move while learning. The tactile nature of rock climbing and the brightly coloured and multi-shaped holds provide for the sensory needs of an ASD child.
- Climbing can also help support language as it encourages cross pattern movement.
- Climbing can help to develop the vestibular system (balance) and proprioception (spatial body awareness).
- Climbing encourages problem-solving; independent thinking and can help improve behaviour through Interhemispheric Integration.
Climbing as also been used as a form of therapy for individuals with dyspraxia, cerebral palsy, sensory integration dysfunction, learning disabilities, ADD, and more…
The Nature Effect
The cognitive benefits of nature apply to any sport that takes us outdoors, but I thought I should just mention it so that we have a complete picture on the brain benefits of rock climbing.
So there you go… Far from being a “brainless” sport requiring nothing but brute strength, rock climbing offers a significant coverage of benefits for the brain that are unique to this sport. So the next time you think you’re only flexing your muscles on the rock, think again. There’s also a lot going on in that muscle above your shoulders.