The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Rock Climbing
Josh Larson was about 14 years old when he went to a carnival and decided to give the climbing wall a whirl. It was nothing major—about 25 feet, he recalls—but the instructor was impressed and made a deal with him. “He said, ‘If you climb this other route, which is the hardest one, we’ll give you a harness, and you can go back home and find a climbing gym.’”
Larson is now an elite rock climber. He’s head coach of the USA Climbing National Team, which governs competitive climbing in the U.S., and in 2018, he and his wife established a new route in the Peruvian Andes, becoming the first people ever to discover that specific way up the 15,000-foot-tall cliffs.
“I love that it mentally pushes me day in and day out, but I also love the community,” he says. When people try it, “it changes their life, and they’re addicted.”
Indoor and outdoor rock climbing have spiked in popularity in recent years—including on social-media platforms, where videos about the sport have collected billions of views. That’s thanks to a variety of factors: the addition of sport climbing to the 2020 Summer Olympics, a rapidly increasing number of climbing gyms in all pockets of the U.S., and the many physical and mental health benefits associated with the sport.
Even though it may look intimidating, if you can climb a set of stairs or a ladder, you likely have the skills to give it a try, experts say. L. Renee Blount, who was born with a breathing condition that kept her from playing sports growing up, fell in love with climbing in college. Some forms, like bouldering, involve brief, intense spurts with built-in breaks, which helped her avoid overexerting herself. “I really loved it because I just seamlessly fit in,” she says. “Climbing is for everyone.”
Blount is now a professional adventurer and climbs about twice a week—and she appreciates the sport’s built-in social opportunities and welcoming, inclusive nature. “You always have a cheering section,” she says, which can be particularly helpful if you’re intimidated by the idea of clambering up a 50-foot wall. It’s natural to feel nervous about the idea of rock climbing—cue a mental image of someone dangling from a cliff—but safety training and checks are required at indoor gyms.
Most people start climbing indoors and progress outdoors when they become more experienced. Indoor climbing offers a safe environment where it’s easy to train and improve skills, says Michael Hamlin, a personal trainer who’s provided strength and conditioning instruction to climbers. There’s typically a wide range of climbing routes, including some designed for kids and other beginners. Plus, indoor walls make climbing year-round possible, regardless of weather conditions. Outdoor climbing, meanwhile, provides the opportunity to connect with nature, a greater sense of adventure, and more challenging routes, Hamlin says.
Whether indoors or outdoors, you’re going to make physical and mental gains. Here are six health benefits associated with rock climbing.
It improves cardiorespiratory fitness.
Rock climbing is good for the heart. According to one study, it requires the same amount of energy as running an 8- to 11-minute mile. A 155-pound climber would burn between eight and 10 calories per minute, or around 600 per hour. “Because you’re constantly engaging the body, you’re going to have an elevated heart rate,” says Pete Rohleder, a kinesiologist at Georgia State University.
It builds strength.
Climbing is a full-body exercise: You’ll use your upper body, core, and lower body, and will especially work your pulling muscles, including your biceps, wrist flexors, and back muscles. You’ll even use those in your fingers and feet. “You’re tapping into different muscles that you’re not going to work in a traditional setting,” Rohleder says. Climbing requires isometric holds—which means a muscle contracts, but there’s no change in its length. (Think: holding a plank.) “You have to hold these positions to stay on the wall, and that trains muscles a little bit differently than traditional up-and-down movements in a gym,” he says.
It boosts brain power.
Rock climbing isn’t just a great workout for the body—it also exercises the brain. In one study, climbing for about two hours boosted working memory capacity by 50%.
Unlike most other forms of exercise, the sport improves perceptual cognitive ability. “It’s all about planning, decision-making, reacting, coordinating, balancing,” Rohleder says. “That plays a huge role in not only physical development and control, but also in sharpening the mind and improving our brain’s ability to make decisions.”
Some people like to say that climbing is 20% physical and 80% mental, Larson notes. The athletes he works with often report being mentally exhausted after a training session, because the sport requires so much problem-solving. “You’re using your brain when you look at a boulder or route; there’s all these holes everywhere, but you’re not exactly sure the best way to do it,” he says. “You’ll have an option of hundreds of different routes, and thousands of different movements. There’s an inefficient way, and there’s an efficient way, so you need to use your brain to find the efficient way.”
It’s good for mental health.
Research suggests that climbing is therapeutic. Multiple studies indicate that it can help reduce symptoms of depression, perhaps because it demands focused attention and mindfulness. Some practitioners even use climbing therapy in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy.
Climbing is “deeply meditative,” says Blount, who credits the sport with helping her cope better with stress. Even if you’re having a subpar day, you’ll have no choice but to block out unpleasant thoughts. “It really helps give this deep mental break, because you’re focusing on doing this one thing.”
Blount ascends a static line in Red Rocks, just outside of Las Vegas, in March 2022.
It improves communication.
Lindsay Wenndt, a body-positive fitness trainer and member of the Ladies Climbing Coalition in Atlanta, climbs indoors about once a month with a group of friends. She particularly enjoys lead climbing, a style in which the climber wears a harness attached to a rope that someone on the ground is holding.
That, by necessity, makes climbing a team sport. “You’re constantly communicating back and forth with the person who’s on the ground, and the person on the ground has to be watching you like a hawk,” Wenndt says. “It’s a very active partnership.” If she needs more slack in the rope, or wants it to be pulled tighter, it’s essential that she says so. “It’s not a sport where you can be shy,” she says.
It’s a fun confidence-builder.
Wenndt loves a challenge—and rock climbing delivers. Sometimes, that means a dose of humility. “There are going to be times when you’re standing at the bottom, and you’re looking at the route thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got it,’” she says. “And you’ll get halfway up the wall, and suddenly you’ll get stuck.” Sometimes you’ll even fall. The point is, failure is inevitable, she says, and accepting that can be empowering. “You have to be open to failing again and again. You have to set your ego aside,” Wenndt says.
Overall though, climbers stress that the sport is a major confidence booster. For all the times that you won’t reach the top, imagine the thrill when you do. Blount has learned that she can climb cliffs overlooking the ocean, at Joshua Tree National Park, at Yosemite—and even around the globe in remote locations. She enjoys the view, pushing herself, and spending time with others chasing the same goal.
“It shouldn’t be only about the journey to the top,” she says. “If you think that, you really missed out on the whole joy of it. It’s about working through it with others. That’s what makes it fun.”
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