By Chris Gabriel
Rock climbing is as much a puzzle as it is a sport. Anyone could guess that climbing requires a unique combination of athletic skills: muscular power to lift against gravity, balance and coordination to move efficiently from point to point, and core stability to hold the body to the wall. What is less obvious is that rock climbing also requires a level of strategizing akin to a game of chess, where the precise position of the limbs must be planned several moves in advance. In bouldering, a popular type of climbing, routes are literally called problems, each challenging climbers to use a unique combination of moves and skills to reach the finish. Recent research suggests that the physical and cognitive demands of rock climbing may change the brain in unique ways and provide surprising benefits to mental health.
To understand whether rock climbing provides unique benefits to the brain, it’s important to think about the contribution of exercise to brain health more generally.
When you think of climbing, you might imagine steep and wondrous cliffs out in the wilderness. Perhaps you’ve seen climbing documentaries such as Free Solo that depict incredible—and frighteningly dangerous—ascents of grand natural structures. And yet most climbing takes place indoors at dedicated climbing gyms, which have become increasingly more numerous over the past decade (Climbing Business Journal, 2022). Professionals set routes to follow, offering a smattering of easy and difficult routes that allow beginners and experts alike to find a challenge. This type of climbing has been growing in popularity for years, with a recent spike in growth since rock climbing’s Olympic debut in 2020 (Climbing Business Journal, 2022).
To understand whether rock climbing provides unique benefits to the brain, it’s important to think about the contribution of exercise to brain health more generally. Researchers have found that physical activity can facilitate recovery from injury and improve learning and memory, particularly in cases of neurodegenerative disorders like dementia and Parkinson’s disease (Alkadhi, 2018). Animal studies have even shown that exercise can enhance cognitive function and prevent the decline of memory with age (Erickson et al., 2011; Kim et al., 2010). However, the most prominent way that exercise seems to impact brain function is by promoting higher levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a signaling molecule which promotes enhanced plasticity and other neuroprotective effects (Cotman & Engesser-Cesar, 2002). Thus, BDNF seems to improve communication between neurons and to support their long-term health. Healthier neurons make for healthier cognition.
The specific challenges of rock climbing may make it a particularly beneficial form of exercise.
The specific challenges of rock climbing may make it a particularly beneficial form of exercise. For one, advanced climbers develop distinct abilities as a result of the unique motor and cognitive demands that rock climbing places on the body. In one study, researchers recorded detailed limb positions during climbing sessions, in order to derive the posture and position of each climber from start to finish. When comparing expert climbers to physically-similar controls without climbing experience, expert climbers moved their bodies differently and better managed their center-of-mass while on the wall (Zampagni et al., 2011). Because climbing requires unintuitive vertical motion, rock climbing pushes the brain to change body coordination and movement strategies to facilitate an easier and more efficient ascent. Research suggests that these abilities arise not from the mere physicality of rock climbing but from the cognitive demands it imposes on the brain.
Human studies have identified two key brain regions in which expert rock climbers differ uniquely from novices: the cerebellum and the parietal cortex. The cerebellum is thought to be involved in coordinating the complex sensory and motor systems needed for rock climbing, orchestrating fine movements that stabilize the body, explosive movements to gain altitude, and eye-body coordination that allows those movements to happen at the precise time and location needed. Dysfunction in this structure yields a loss of coordination and impairment of new motor learning (Ito, 2002). One study compared expert climbers and physically similar individuals with no history of climbing. Using MRI to examine brain activity, researchers found that the expert climbers tended to have increased volume in the vermis, a subregion of the cerebellum (Di Paola et al., 2013). This study also noted enlargement for experts in part of the parietal cortex linked to planning fine hand movements. These studies suggest that rock climbing can change the brain in unique ways, but research directly comparing the brains of experts in a variety of athletic activities is needed to fully understand which changes can be attributed uniquely to rock climbing.
The cognitive changes associated with rock climbing can go beyond just motor control and coordination.
The cognitive changes associated with rock climbing can go beyond just motor control and coordination. A recent experiment integrated group therapy with bouldering and found symptoms of depression improved amongst participants above and beyond each participant’s normal treatment routine (Luttenberger et al., 2015). Furthermore, another study found that group bouldering therapy was superior to a home-exercise routine for treating depression (Karg et al., 2020). Researchers aimed to assess the magnitude of this effect by randomly assigning some participants to either receive group rock climbing therapy or group cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the leading therapies for depression, and assessing their symptoms over the course of treatment. As it turned out, rock climbing therapy was equally effective as CBT at treating depression (Luttenberger et al., 2022). Participants receiving rock climbing therapy saw improvements that were on par with other exercise treatments. Thus, group climbing is, at minimum, an effective way to apply the anti-depressive benefits of exercise to therapy and may be more effective than some exercise-based treatments.
The available research suggests that rock climbing could provide benefits beyond those of other exercises to cognition, motor control, and mental well-being. Still, it’s difficult to disentangle which benefits arise from rock climbing and which come from exercise more generally. Future studies should follow up on these questions by directly comparing the cognitive effects of rock climbing against other exercise methods and evaluating how the brains of other expert athletes compare to those of expert climbers.
Written by Chris Gabriel
Illustrated by Kayla Lim
Edited by Shiri Spitz Siddiqi, Johanna Popp, and Zoe Dobler
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