Why Climbing is Good for Improving Cognition

It’s easy to see the physical benefits of a regular climbing habit; it’s a full body workout, involving all major muscle groups, that increases strength and flexibility without having to crank out multiple reps of unimaginative stationary exercises. But how about when it comes to the mind? Is climbing only good for mindfulness and improving mood, or can it help us train our brains too?

The answer lies within the skills needed to plan a safe and successful route to the top of the climbing wall, boulder or cliff face. Good problem-solving skills, self-knowledge and flexibility of mind are all essential components of being a climber, but this aspect of the sport is often overlooked in favour of the more immediately impressive physical elements.

Let’s take a look at how and why climbing and cognitive function are a match made in heaven.

On the ridge

Strategic Thinking

As every climber knows, it’s no good setting off up your latest ascent with absolutely no plan in mind. Almost straight away you will come up against obstacles that force you to pause and think about how to proceed, sometimes necessitating a trip all the way back to the start of your climb. This can be disheartening and time consuming. What you need to enlist is strategy.

Strategic thinking is already employed in many areas of life, often without us even being aware of it. Want to make a good impression on the big boss at your latest work meeting? Chances are, you’re using strategic thinking to achieve that. Grinding away at your favourite online game? You’re almost certainly using strategic thinking to outfox your opponents. Even planning a holiday, losing weight or enjoying your weekend require strategic thinking to make them a success.

In climbing, strategic thinking is what gets you to the top of the climb. Whether your goal is simply to reach the top, or to beat your own PB time, or to attempt the trickiest or the simplest route – whatever it is, you will need to use strategic thinking to achieve it. And so, the more you practice strategic thinking in your regular climbing habit, the easier it will be to apply this useful skill to other areas of your life.

The main components of strategic thinking are: plan, visualise, focus, celebrate, learn, believe and, perhaps most importantly of all, accept help where it’s given. It’s all very well and good visualising the top of the mountain, but you need to employ concrete skills and tactics to reach it, including self-belief and a failsafe support network. Being able to do this whilst hanging off the side of a literal mountain makes it much more likely that you’ll be able to call on these techniques when you need them at home or at work.

Memory

Another important cognitive skill used in climbing is memory. When we think of memory, what springs to mind is remembering a special holiday, or the date of our spouse’s birthday, or how to ride a bike. However, memory plays a vital part in how we live our everyday lives, working away subconsciously in the background as we go about our daily routine. Improving our memory can mean that we’re able to carry out tasks more quickly, reach conclusions without so much faffing around, and general perform at a higher level in our work and home life.

In climbing, planning a route is only half the battle; you then need to remember the different steps and nuances of the route during your climb, in order to reach the top safely. Memorising climbing routes is the perfect tactic for improving your memory in general, as it could help contribute to bridging the gaps between all four brain hemispheres. As well as remembering specific routes, you’ll also need to remember how to move your body, how to use different hand grips, and other tactics in order to make the most of your climb. All of these skills contribute to a more robust memory that can then be called on in a variety of situations.

Problem Solving

Almost a by-product of improved memory and strategic thinking is increased problem solving skills. If you can recall similar situations and the solutions to those previous problems, then you’ve a better chance of solving your current issue. If you’re able to think strategically about your approach to a new problem, then your chances of solving it go up as well.

A climbing wall

A climbing wall is like a giant chess problem; if you can figure out the best way in which to approach it, then you’re activating the same areas of the brain that are used when you play chess or other cerebral games. This will stand you in good stead in other areas of life, as you can call on the cognitive skills developed during climbing sessions to approach obstacles in relationships, your work, social situations, education and more.