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Climbing Toward Wellness

Rock climbing is an adventure sport that has been around for decades. It can include bouldering (climbing short walls without ropes), top roping (climbing taller walls with ropes and a pre-set anchor) and lead climbing (rope climbing without a pre-set anchor). However, only recently has it become popularized, so much so that it made its debut in the Olympics in 2020. Why the sudden increase in popularity?  


To start, rock climbing is no longer relegated only to the most dedicated of athletes whose access was once limited to rugged mountains in remote areas. Because of increased public interest in climbing, gyms have exploded all around the nation making it far easier for the layperson to give climbing a try. In the Boston area alone, there are at least ten different gyms!  


Additionally an indoor gym, unlike the great outdoors, is generally safer — all gear and equipment is routinely tested and the floors are covered in soft padding making a potential fall far less scary than if it were covered in jagged rocks! Plus, it’s easier to build community at a gym and find friends to regularly climb with. Thus, the combination of greater access to local gyms, greater safety and the potential for community has resulted in rock climbing’s surge in popularity.


In addition to its obvious physical benefits, climbing also offers mental, emotional and social benefits. Though little research has been currently conducted to prove the therapeutic aspects of climbing, one 2021 qualitative study found that “TC [Therapeutic Climbing] can have a decisive effect on the social, psychological and physiological domain as a sensibly used add-on therapy.” 


Key psychological benefits as listed from the study include:

  • an increased sense of self-worth and self-efficacy

  • the opportunity to confront and overcome fears

  • improved attention, focus and concentration

  • improved motivation

  • an overall increase in well-being

  • enhanced communication and trust in others (especially when rope climbing with a partner)

  • the opportunity to build relationships and community


Research aside, my own personal experience as a climber for fourteen years has shown me time and again that rock climbing is inherently therapeutic. Even now, I continue to see how climbing itself often serves as a metaphor, where lessons learned on the wall can easily be applied to everyday life. 

Below are just a few of the key lessons that have served me well:

  1. Take life one step at a time. Stay present and focus on what’s in front of you.

  2. Remember to breathe. Breathing is one of your best tools and will help you to relax, especially when things get hard.

  3. Don’t limit yourself to what you think you can or can’t do. Be curious and willing to try challenges as you might surprise yourself by what you can accomplish.

  4. Surround yourself with supportive and positive people who believe in you and encourage you to do your best.

  5. The most satisfying journeys are the ones that challenge you the most, so embrace challenge!  Even if you don’t “reach the top,” you will have learned something along the way.

  6. Remember to celebrate the little victories! Celebrate yourself often and let others celebrate you too.


All in all, rock climbing clearly has many benefits to offer. It is a unique sport as it not only serves as a physical outlet, but also offers much in terms of improving one’s psychological well-being. If interested in trying out rock climbing, consider checking out this article for a list of five potential gyms in the Boston area. 


References:

Frühauf A, Heußner J, Niedermeier M, Kopp M. Expert views on therapeutic climbing - A 

multi-perspective, qualitative study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Mar 

29;18(7):3535. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18073535.

Yannone, T. (2018, October 25). Reach your peak at these five Boston climbing gyms. Boston Magazine. https://www.bostonmagazine.com/health/2018/10/26/boston-rock-climbing-gym/ 





 

Jennifer Liff is an intern and student at Lesley University who will earn her master's degree in 2024 in Mental Health Counseling with a specialization in Expressive Arts Therapy. Prior to Looking Glass Counseling, Jennifer worked with adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities and ran small psychoeducational groups to teach professional skills, emotion regulation and creative expression. Jennifer specializes in working with depression, anxiety, grief/loss, neurodivergence and high sensitivity. The modalities that guide Jennifer’s work include expressive arts therapy, person-centered therapy, narrative therapy and existential therapy.


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