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22 Health Benefits of Climbing – Backed by Research

22 Health Benefits of Climbing – Backed by Research

Whether you have been climbing for a long time and are curious about the type of benefits you are getting from your climbing training or you are thinking about getting into rock climbing and wanted evidence regarding the different benefits you may get from rock climbing, this article outlines many benefits you get from rock climbing.

Rock climbing has been around since the beginning of time and has recently been increasing in popularity. In the 2020 Olympics, rock climbing will debut for the first time and climbing will become even more popular as more people learn about it. So is rock climbing just a fun challenge that people around the world have come to love, or is there more to it?

Compared to most other sports, rock climbing is very diverse and provides benefits in every aspect of your life including physical, mental/emotional and social benefits. Since climbing has become more popular, there has been an increase in the amount of research that looks at the effects of climbing on a person. 

There are hundreds of studies and research for every aspect of climbing that includes many rock climbing benefits but there isn’t a way for me to consolidate it completely into one article. For that reason, I have chosen a few of the benefits that stood out to me the most. To make this article easier to digest, benefits have been divided it into mental and emotional, social, and physical benefits that you get from climbing.

Mental and Emotional Benefits of Rock Climbing

Rock climbing has many mental and emotional benefits, in addition to physical benefits. For example, research about the benefits of climbing has identified that since it builds motor function, coordination skills, concentration and other psychological aspects, climbing is highly comprehensive and compared to other sports. In addition, climbing is thought to be a helpful treatment and management for many neurological and psychiatric diseases. 

Rock Climbing Decreases Anxiety

Rock climbing has been analyzed for psychophysical benefits such as anxiety reduction in multiple studies. For example, one study about the psychophysical benefits of rock climbing tested for anxiety before and after 3 months of the climbing training and compared it to 3 months of fitness training. Results show that anxiety significantly decreased after 3 months of the climbing training sessions in comparison to the fitness training group.

Rock Climbing Builds Problem Solving Skills

The nature of rock climbing is problem-solving so you become mentally stronger as you progress. Climbing routes are called problems, which is accurately named because each route is a problem that you have to solve. Navigating routes includes judging your own abilities such as strength and flexibility, then comparing your strengths/weaknesses to the problem and identify how you can apply those strengths and weaknesses to complete the climb/solve the problem. The evaluation process is done both before the climb starts and then during the climb, you may need to adjust and reevaluate how you complete the problem with each movement. 

Rock Climbing Decreases Depression

Research has shown that rock climbing decreases depression. For example, in this study exploring indoor rock climbing as a new treatment for depression measured depression with a  Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) before and after eight weeks of climbing training. Results show that climbing significantly decreased depression levels and may be a good treatment for individuals with depression.

Rock Climbing Can Decrease Seasonal Depression

Compared to depression, seasonal depression comes at the same time each year and leaves after the season is over. Many people who suffer from seasonal depression struggle with staying active during those specific times of the year such as winter. However, since climbing can be done year-round at indoor climbing gyms, the benefits that rock climbing provides for decreasing depression levels (see above) can be utilized year-round.

Rock Climbing Can Enhance Learning and Performance Skills

According to multiple studies, physical activity involved in climbing can enhance cognitive performance, which is the ability to learn and perform. For example, this study looks at the influence of physical activity and cognitive abilities directly on increasing your ability to learn.  Your ability to learn is an important part of maintaining mental performance throughout your entire life, including old age.

Rock Climbing Can Increase Your Memory Capacity

The physical and mental activities involved in climbing such as balance, muscle coordination, spatial orientation and other aspects of climbing can significantly improve a person’s working memory, according to a study from the University of North Florida. In there study, they found that after two hours of climbing, researchers found that participants working memory capacity had increased by 50 percent, which is a dramatic improvement.

Rock Climbing Can Decrease Stress

Rock climbing, like many other forms of exercise, is a great way of reducing stress and increase your body’s ability to respond to stress. For example, physical activity increases the production of neuromodulator norepinephrine, which may help the brain deal with stress more efficiently. In addition, according to many studies about using physical exercise to manage stress, exercising gives your body practice dealing with stress by increasing the efficiency of your body’s communication between the cardiovascular system, renal system, muscular system and central and sympathetic nervous systems, all of which are involved in the stress response and thus increases your ability to respond to stress.

Rock Climbing Teaches You To Overcome Challenges

The nature of rock climbing includes looking at a climbing problem and identifying what your strengths and weaknesses will be on the climb, including the challenges that you will need to overcome and then engaging in the climbing problem and actually apply that information to overcome the challenges. This requirement to overcome challenges to complete a climbing problem/route makes it so that climbers are constantly practicing identifying challenges and learning how to overcome them. The more you practice overcoming challenges, the better you will get at overcoming challenges, not just in climbing but in life in general.

Rock Climbing Helps You Overcome Fear

Overcoming fear is one of the most difficult challenges in climbing, however, climbers get a lot of practice overcoming fear and thus, they become better at overcoming fear. Part of overcoming fear is processing the fight or flight response that the adrenaline from climbing produces. For example, in bouldering, every fall results in hitting the ground so many climbers have a fear of falling. When they get to a part of the climbing problem that is difficult and they risk falling, a fight or flight response kicks in. Either they climb back down (the flight response) or keep climbing up (the fight against fear response). Since climbers activate the fight or flight response to fear on a regular basis, they grow better at evaluating and processing that response in other aspects of their daily lives so they can overcome fear better.

Rock Climbing Creates Zen and Flow State Experiences

Flow state is when you’re completely present in the moment despite completing a challenging task. For example, when you are climbing, everything outside of your current situation falls away and the only thing that you think about is the rock and how to get up the wall. Similar to meditation, climbing can lead to “flow” state experiences through mindfulness without sitting still. Some hospitals even recommend climbing for traumatic brain injuries because of the zen-like experiences that climbing produces through attention, concentration and kinesthetic awareness of your body and movement.

Rock Climbing Promotes Patience

According to the dictionary, patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. Climbing promotes patience by being very difficult, likely to fall and have to re-try problems over and over again, etc. No matter how much you train or exercise, there is always a climb that is more difficult than you are able to accomplish. This makes patience an essential part of climbing. The practice of patience in climbing converts to patience in your life as well.

What Are The Social Benefits Of Rock Climbing?

There are many social benefits of rock climbing. Compared to emotional, mental and physical benefits, however, there are fewer data-based studies that evaluate social benefits. Part of this is because social behaviors are more qualitative than quantitative so it is more difficult to apply research to a lot of people. However, many climbers have reported that the nature of climbing, including the actual exercise of rock climbing, rock climbing culture and community makes it easy to identify some of the main social benefits that come from rock climbing.

Rock Climbing Improves Communication Skills

A large part of belaying a climber is communicating with the climber to ensure safe ascent and descent. For example,  if there is miss communication for how a climber is coming down after a route via lowering or repelling, clear communication is essential for the safety of the climber. If there is a miscommunication and a climber intends to be lowered down but the belayer thinks they are repelling down, the climber could fall unsafely to the ground. As such, the development of communication to be precise and clear is practiced each climbing session, which helps improve communication skills and can be applied off the climbing wall.

Rock Climbing Increases Your Ability To Trust 

Rock climbing heavily depends on the trust between the climber and the belayer. A large reason for this is because the belayer is what protects the climber from falling to the ground. If the climber doesn’t trust the belayer, then they will not be able to ascend or feel comfortable being lowered down. For example, if a climber accidentally slips or has to stretch above their comfort zone to get to the next climbing hold, the climber depends on the belayer to catch them, thus, they have to trust the belayer. In addition, the belayer must trust the gear they are using and their personal ability to properly and safely belay the climber. Since trust is at the core of rock climbing, participating in the sport increases your ability to trust others, trust yourself and trust tools (such as a belay device).

Rock Climbing Increases Self-Confidence

An important part of social interactions and relationships is self-confidence. Self-confidence in social experiences can help you feel more comfortable and help you engage more fully in social situations. Rock climbing has been known for being a confidence builder. This is likely because climbing is an achievement-based sport. For example, progressing in climbing and finishing climbing problems that were previously outside of your ability is an achievement.

Rock Climbing Builds Friendships

Rock climbing culture is very sociable and brings people together. Whether you are going to an indoor climbing gym or at your local crag, you will meet other climbers. Climbers frequently ask each other for beta (how to complete the climbing problem) and from those conversations, climbers build relationships with those people. In addition, there are many meet-up groups on social media that are looking for other like-minded climbers so it is easy to meet and get to know other climbers.

What Are The Physical Benefits Of Rock Climbing?

When deciding to get into climbing, many people wonder how rock climbing affects your body. Rock climbing has many physical benefits, in addition to mental and emotional benefits. With the increase in popularity, researchers have started to study the different physical benefits of rock climbing.

Rock Climbing Increases Cardiorespiratory Fitness 

Many rock climbers feel that climbing doesn’t help increase your cardio fitness. However, research has found that rock climbing increases your cardiorespiratory fitness greatly. In one study, data showed that the cardio exertion from climbing is similar to running at a moderate pace of 8-11 minutes per mile. Unlike treadmill and cycle ergometry exercises, however, rock climbing doesn’t elicit the traditional linear relationship between your heart rate and maximal oxygen intake. This is likely why climbers don’t recognize (without proper equipment) that climbing is a good activity to increase cardiorespiratory fitness.

Rock Climbing Increases Muscular Endurance

Multiple studies have shown that rock climbing improves muscular endurance, throughout the entire body. According to this study about the characteristics of climbers, climbers have improved abdominal endurance, shoulder endurance, finger endurance, etc. Climbing builds your endurance when you to repeat movements over and over again, for extended periods of time.

Rock Climbing Increases Muscle Strength

Rock climbing has been known for its strength training similar to resistance exercises with bodyweight. Rock climbing is a full-body workout so you will likely find increased strength from your neck down to your toes. For more information about building muscles through rock climbing, check out this post (Can Climbing Build Muscle and Replace Weight Training)

Since rock climbing is a full-body exercise, almost every muscle in the body builds strength but these are the biggest muscles used in climbing:

  • Upper Body: Many climbers associate climbing with upper-body exercising because there are many upper body muscles worked. Here are the main upper body muscles used in climbing:
    • Deltoids:The Anterior Deltoids are an important muscle in pulling your body up while climbing and is one of the most dominant muscles used by climbers. 
    • Biceps: Not surprisingly, the effort of pulling yourself up with your arms is a bicep heavy exercise. 
    • Triceps: Just like biceps are used to pull yourself up, so are triceps. This is probably why climbers are notoriously great at pull-ups, which is also a triceps heavy exercise. 
    • Forearms: Studies about the effect of rock climbing on health frequently note increased strength of forearms and attribute it to a major part of the grip in climbing. 
    • Pecs (Pectoralis Major/Minor): The chest muscles are major muscles used for pulling down. Climbers frequently recognize pectoral definition after continued climbing training. 
  • Core: Your core is a huge powerhouse for climbing. Without your core muscles, you wouldn’t be able to make the necessary movements for climbing. Here are the main core muscles used in climbing:
    • Lats (Latissimus Dorsi): Lats are what allows you to pull down. When you climb, you are constantly pulling and building your lats.
    • Abdomen: Second to lats is abdominals for the most used muscle in climbing.
  • Lower Body: A frequently under-rated part of climbing by spectators, but your lower body is a huge part of getting up the wall and climbers have reported increased strength and muscle definition. Here are the main lower body muscles used in climbing:
    • Glutes: Your glutes are the bridge to your legs and they get used more than climbers realize.
    • Thighs: Though climbing is frequently considered an upper-body heavy exercise, your thighs can be one of the most used muscles while climbing. 
    • Calves: Every time you place your toe on a climbing hold and push up, you are using your calves.

Rock Climbing Improves Your Flexibility

Rock climbing is one of the few sports that requires flexibility to progress. For example, if you aren’t flexible in your legs, you are limited in the routes that you can climb based on how far you can stretch your legs. Climbers have found that the nature of climbing teaches your body to be more flexible. The more you climb, the more flexible you will become. In addition, many climbers report that they started doing flexibility training after they started climbing so that they could increase their climbing performance. Flexibility, according to a study about the role of flexibility in climbing performance, is a key performance component for climbing. 

Rock Climbing Improves Balance

In order to make many movements in climbing, you have to move your body position and hold your body in balance to continue moving up the wall. Thus, balance is a largely used skill while climbing, which, through continued climbing training, you will build and get better at. People who test their balance abilities before and after 8 weeks of climbing training usually see a significant difference in their balance ability.

Rock Climbing Burns Calories

Rock climbing, like many other exercises, is a great way to burn calories. If you track your activity through an apple watch, you may get a notification that calories burned are equivalent to a brisk walk. However, in a study about the effects of climbing, researchers suggest that even if a person is climbing a few notches below “maximal effort,” they will burn calories nearly equal to intense cardio workouts such as spinning. Since rock climbing is so good at burning calories, many climbers report that physical activity required in climbing makes it easier to lose weight and burn fat.

Rock Climbing Decreases Risk of Many Chronic Illnesses

Rock climbing decreases the risk of many chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. According to one study, aerobic exercise (such as rock climbing) can decrease your chance of heart disease and can help manage high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. In another study about exercise, heart and health, regular physical activity reduces the risk of CAD or stroke, prevents cancer, and decreases total mortality. 

Conclusion

Rock climbing provides more benefits than almost any other sport. As such, climbing has been the point of study for more than just physical health, but also mental and emotional care as well. Prior to doing the research for this article, all I knew is what I had observed in myself while climbing as well as some benefits that other climbers have expressed to me. 

Though the benefits outlined above have been studied and are evident in research papers, the best way to know if you will get the same benefits is by trying it out yourself. If you are curious about how climbing will affect you and if you would like any of the benefits listed above, I recommend evaluating your current status regarding the benefits listed above, then climb regularly for at least 8 weeks and reevaluate each aspect to see if you notice the same benefits. 

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