Your Brain on Rock Climbing

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
  • visualisation
  • problem solving
  • determination
  • spatial awareness
  • planning
  • concentration

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.
Krabi Part 3

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.

Fighting Fatigue

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.

Proprioceptive Activity

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

Rock climbing has also been used as a form of therapy for kids with 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.


Getting the Most Out of Your Brain Training

There are many ways to sharpen the brain and keep it finely honed – methods that have consistently proven time again through research to be effective. But let’s face it… in the rapid pace of life that we live in, it can be difficult to fit one or two of these activities in. Given the limited commodity of time, we all want the biggest bang for our buck. What it comes down to is how we can combine these activities so we can get the most out of the time we spend.

So what are some ways we can maximise our brain training time?

Take a Hike

Hiking is a great activity for boosting brain power because:

All for one and one for all! The Jungle Janes have been at it again... #hiking #workout #nature1. Hiking is a physical activity

And we know why physical activity is one of the best ways to improve brain health and cognitive function:

  • it improves circulation
  • it jump starts brain growth
  • it improves memory
  • it boosts decision making skills
  • it lengthens attention span
  • it improves multi-tasking and planning

See also:

2. Hiking connects us with nature

Admittedly, the link between nature and enhanced cognitive performance is still under scrutiny, but the early findings have demonstrated some promise that warrant further investigation, such as:

Bratman, Hamilton and Daily – The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health – also confirm as much:

We have reviewed many studies that demonstrate impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. These effects have been shown to occur in measures of memory, attention, concentration, impulse inhibition, and mood. The studies considered here span many of the major areas of examination within contemporary psychology and, taken together, constitute a strong foundation for an emerging field of inquiry.

Even if we can’t claim the cognitive benefits of nature with a certainty, what is definitely clear is that nature is good for our emotional well-being and we all know that emotional well-being impacts work performance and academic achievement. If you extrapolate this further – a happy brain functions better. Bottom line: nature is good for the brain.

New evidence that emotional and social wellbeing leads to higher levels of academic achievement:

  • Children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social, and school wellbeing, on average, have higher levels of academic achievement and are more engaged in school, both concurrently and in later years.

Feelings and Emotions Affect Workplace Performance:

  • Human emotions are real and they impact a wide range of material business metrics, from a company’s share price, to the value of its brand, through to its customer service rating.

See also:

3. Hiking frees the mind

Since hiking is a physical activity that does not require too much focused attention, it frees your mind for further mental exercise. The next time you go for a hike, try putting your walk on steroids with a little Mindfulness Meditation.

Mindfulness meditation, like other forms of meditation, offer numerous benefits to the mind and body. These are the benefits for your brain:

Plaster Your Walls with Nature

Even though the jury is still out on just how effective nature exposure can be on brain cognition, this one’s just too easy to give it a miss…

If simply looking at nature can improve brain function – and we’re talking pictures of nature, not even the real stuff – then all we really need are some pictures of nature plastered on the walls where we can gaze at them while taking mini-breaks from whatever we’re working on.

Here are a few to get you started (click on them to see the full image):

Photo Credits:

Choose a Power Hobby

If you’re looking for a hobby, why not pick one that will offer your brain some mental exercise as well? We know that these are pretty effective…

1. Play a Sport

Photo Credit: Stylecraze

Physical activity is good for the brain and by virtue of that fact, any sport will also do the trick. If you want to up the ante, choose a sport that will get you outdoors, like rock climbing, biking, or rowing. For the biggest bang of all, do yoga because it offers the greatest brain benefits. And where else should you practice yoga but outdoors in a park surrounded by nature.

2. Learn a Second Language

Aside from opening more doors for travel and work, being proficient at a second language is also good for the brain:

There’s so much out there on the numerous benefits of being able to speak a second language that I think we need not say any more on this topic.

3. Learn a musical instrument

If listening to music can be likened to a light workout for your brain, then playing a musical instrument for the mind would be the equivalent of the full-body workout. Here are some of the ways learning a musical instrument benefits the brain:

  • Music enhances coordination, concentration and memory, and improves eyesight and hearing. The process of learning to play an instrument refines the development of the brain and the entire neurological system.
  • Studies show that musical training develops the part of the brain responsible for processing language, and that it can wire the brain’s circuits in specific ways.
  • 2 years of learning piano has shown an increase of 30-40% in Math and Spatial scores.
  • Music develops creativity.

Photo Credit: Love this pic

4. Play thinking games

Games like chess and mah jong offer a lot of benefits for the brain:

And if you want to add a little more brain punch to these games, why not take them out into nature? Perhaps those chess players at Washington Park had the right idea after all…

Boosting Memory – Proprioceptive Activities and Exercise

We’ve heard over and over how exercise and physical activity in general is good for our brains overall:

Recently, we learned that specific physical activities can enhance memory even further, especially when applied under certain conditions…

The right combination of exercise and learning can improve long-term memory

Exercise can improve long-term memory when new words were learned during exercise as opposed to after. The exercise, however, must be of low-intensity because the effects can be negated if the brain becomes over-stimulated from intense physical activity.

In a study by Schmidt-Kassow et al (May, 2013), 105 young women were given new words to learn either after or while they rode an exercise bike. Results demonstrated a boost to long-term memory when the new vocab was learned during exercise, but not if the learning took place afterwards. For the effect to be observed, the exercise had to be light to moderate intensity but not more than that.

Boost working memory with proprioceptive activities

We know that working memory is important:

We also know a variety of ways we can improve working memory:

Now, in a recent study by Alloway & Alloway (June, 2015), researchers have found that proprioceptive activities could improve working memory by as much as 50%:

In this study a training group completed a series of proprioceptively demanding exercises. There were also control classroom and yoga groups. Working memory was measured using a backward digit recall test. The data indicated that active, healthy adults who undertook acute, proprioceptively demanding training improved working memory scores compared to the classroom and yoga groups. One possible reason that the training yielded significant working memory gains could be that the training was proprioceptively dynamic, requiring proprioception and at least one other factor—such as locomotion or navigation—at the same time, which may have contributed to the improvements in working memory performance.

What are proprioceptive activities?

Proprioception is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement. – Wikipedia

Proprioceptive activities stimulate the proprioceptive sense by pushing and pulling the joints in the body. These activities include climbing a tree, balancing on a beam, carrying awkward weights, and navigating around obstacles.