Your Brain On Rock Climbing
Get Your Rocks On
By Dr. Elke
At the most basic level, it seems so simple. You reach, hold, push, grab, extend, pull, balance, and just aim for up. However, you are actually accomplishing a lot more than you think with each of those movements, from posture to brain function, to improved proprioception, mindfulness and surges of dopamine.
This is your brain on rock climbing.
Let’s start at the very beginning. When we are in utero, still in the belly, the first input to our nervous system as we start to pick up movement is through the inner ear, or vestibular system. When we are born, this system works to correct our posture and the effects of said posture. When movement is noted in the canals of our inner ear, messages are sent to the cerebellum which helps us to recognize where we are in space; this information is then sent to the cortex of our brain which helps decide if we are the position we should be in. If our cortex determines that we are not in the position we should be in, then the output to our body is a corrective one. We will change position, even ever so slightly in order for our eyes to always see horizon as horizontal. This is all a part of sensory input. We require quality sensory input to properly stimulate and maintain activation of the various lobes of our brain and ultimately to properly respond to our environment.
The vestibular system is the first to give its input to our nervous systems, and is accordingly a mighty system that drives a cascade of signals that influence our balance, posture, hand-eye coordination, the necessary curve in our necks, and brain function. Rock climbing allows us to activate and challenge our vestibular systems as we look up and down, to the right and to the left, up and left, up and right etc. When we make these movements we are activating our vestibular reflexes, giving them a workout if you will, so that we can reap the benefits of a brawny system – from posture and performance to cognition, behaviour and learning strategies, these are all affected in our pursuit to the top.
After we come out of the belly, we end up on our bellies. This is great because that is where we start to develop the curve in our neck that is so vital to brain health. After tummy time, we begin the journey onto our hands and knees and begin to crawl. Crawling is an important step in our brain development as it sets the tone of our communication between our right-brain and our left-brain. When we crawl, we utilize a movement pattern called ‘cross-crawl’ as the right side of our brain coordinates movement of the left side of our body, and vice versa. This communication must occur between the two hemispheres in order to create the oppositional movement of bringing the left arm forward with the right leg and right arm with left leg. This cross-crawl pattern is essential for our coordination, balance, and brain function. A lack of the ability for cross-crawl can indicate developmental delay and manifest in different ways. This oppositional movement also stimulates brain development as new pathways are created and maintained that strengthen our spatial awareness, gait, balance, coordination and the efficiency of our movements. The cross-crawl action is great for kids and their neurological development but you are never too old to crawl, or as with rock climbing, to get vertical with that crawl!
To even stay on the wall, we need to be touching it. The majority of brain activity is based on sensory input. If we are not taking in information, we can’t respond well to our environment. This means it’s hard to respond to what our bodies need to survive, to sense a cut on our skin and begin the process of healing, to avoid falling, or to function day to day. When we climb however, we are constantly changing the position of our joints, sensing the face of the wall, the feel and characteristics of a hold – all of which are perceived by mechanoreceptors in the joints, skin, muscles and tendons, which send that information to the spinal cord and then to the brain so that we can respond best to the situation. Rock climbing helps to develop our sense of proprioception and body awareness, allowing us to be quick to adapt to our changing circumstances, whether it’s mid-climb, on an icy sidewalk, or picking something up off the ground. Good sensory input promotes good motor (responsive) output. Participating in activities that are proprioceptively demanding have even been shown to improve working memory scores1, sweet!
Often times, when we are told to meditate and be mindful the first thing we think of is sitting on the ground, palms up, getting worried that a thought might cross our ‘clear’ mind. Being mindful, however is more a practice on focusing on the now. So just as something like colouring can increase our mindfulness and calm, so can rock climbing. As we focus on the present and our movement as we reach for the next hold, we are not thinking about anything else, otherwise it may mean falling off the wall.
Focusing on the present task also facilitates the development of our problem solving skills as we conquer the mental challenge of determining how we will reach the top. Solving a route means figuring out the best and most efficient way for your body to get there – making rock climbing a unique exercise as it works your mental capacities and body simultaneously. Once you’ve solved the problem, whether it’s one move or the whole route, your sense of accomplishment transmits a surge of dopamine throughout your body and you feel awesome! You have achieved a challenge, no matter the size, that you had chosen to accept. Many times, failure is a part of the journey, but keeping with it and accomplishing any part of it helps to increase self-esteem, satisfaction within yourself, and much, much more. As Sir Edmund Hillary so wisely put it,
“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”
Who knew that the sport you love, or may soon love, is one that can build your brain, your kids’ brain, your esteem and self-realization. As you climb, you’re leveling up your brain function. So squeeze your feet into some climbing shoes and reach to, then revel in, new heights.
Alloway RG, Alloway TP. The Working Memory Benefits of Proprioceptively Demanding Training: A Pilot Study. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 2015; 120; 3: 766-775