Article - Climbing and addiction by Jennifer Bateman

How Climbing Affects Brain Chemistry in the Fight Against Addiction

It has long been advocated that exercise does more for a person’s body than just altering physical appearance. It is scientifically proven that participating in a form of exercise such as rock climbing can improve the function of the brain. For the past decade, scientists have been developing and gathering evidence that proves the positive relationship between exercise and brainpower.

In overcoming addiction, the benefits of exercise to an individual are huge. Addiction is often associated with introversion and loneliness. Often, the individual becomes so involved in the addiction that he detaches himself from other people and activities. Team-building exercises could be the ideal way to encourage interaction with others while improving the function of the brain. The most compelling evidence for this comes from a recent animal study that found those living in busy, enriched environments exhibited greater intelligence and brain activity.

Exercise leads to higher brainpower

In 2011, a research team from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois studied the impact of exercise on four groups of mice. Group one was housed in a cage containing maximum stimulation, with a varied diet of fruit, nuts and cheeses, and toys that included neon tunnels, tubes, balls, blocks, seesaws and mirrors. Group two was given access to all of these pleasures, but also had a small running wheel in their cage. Group three was housed in a plain, dull cage and was fed a basic diet. Group four was in a dull cage, but with a running wheel. The mice were given cognitive tests at the start of the experiment, and were injected with a liquid that enabled researchers to monitor their brain activity. The mice were then left for several months to adapt to their environments. After this, they were put through another series of cognitive tests. The scientists found that the mice that had the running wheels in their cages performed better at the tests, regardless of whether they had the toys or fancy diet. The mice seemed to enjoy the toys, but exercise led to higher functioning brains.

Chemical changes

Exercise is vital to brain chemistry because the brain is a tissue that is subject to decline. Age is a typical factor that causes this tissue to decline, and addiction is another. Starting in the late twenties, people typically lose around one percent annually of the hippocampus, a portion of the brain that enables memory and some types of learning. Addiction can add to this decline. However, exercise has been found to slow or even reverse this process. The human brain is capable of developing additional brain cells, and exercise has been found to encourage this development. The brain already contains neurons that, when mixed with brain cells, can heighten brainpower. Exercising has been found to jump-start neurogenesis; a process that causes the brain – just like any other muscle in the body – to build up. For people trying to overcome addiction, this neural activity helps to fast-track the brain back to its natural capability.

The adoption stage

Taking up exercises such as gym-based activities is a difficult task; it is highly likely that once you start, you will not find it enjoyable or easy for several weeks or even months. This is because your body needs to go through an adoption stage while fitness levels improve. This is hard enough for anyone, let alone for someone who is trying to overcome addiction; willpower is even more difficult to sustain. This is why an activity such as climbing can be good for those trying to overcome addiction; not only is climbing a challenging form of exercise, but it is also fun from the offset. Climbing is therefore recommended as part of a recovery program for those suffering from addiction; it is a team-based activity, and is typically taught in fascinating outdoor environments. Both of these factors are good for a recovering brain and alleviate the pain and boredom often associated with early-stage exercise. In addition to the advised therapy sessions and medication, exercise is highly effective, acting as a form as escapism through which to channel negative thoughts and generate positive ones. Exercise acts as a new focus, increasing brain power and providing a new set of goals that will divert attention and carve a new direction.

- Jennifer Bateman.

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Comment by Helene van Gorsel on April 5, 2013 at 13:18
Thanks for posting. As a neuroscientist with a medical background involved in running and climbing I can confirm the observation below that not all exercise is created equal. Running is an endurance sport with a higher cardiovascular load that has many beneficial effects mainly through positive influence on metabolic processes, also in the brain. Running is especially good for mood and general well being (including prevention of cognitive decline). Climbing is physically more of a power than endurance sport, the fun is much more in the mental challenges of overcoming barriers and the reaching of goals. This uses neutransmitter systems (especially dopamine and noradrenaline) that are a crucial part of the brain's attention and reward circuitry - the part strongly affected in addiction. The outdoor factor is also important, meaning that unfortunately climbing in NL, largely an indoor activity, loses some of its power and joy (so does running indoor on a treadmill). In all sports it's also just really nice to get away from the day to day stressors and hang out with like-minded people. Humans are social animals who wither away with too little social interaction.
Comment by François Mommens on April 3, 2013 at 16:04

What about climbing as an addiction ? ;)

Comment by Jen Harvey on April 3, 2013 at 9:59

Today, for example, I didn't climb. So I missed the typo ;-)

Retain is what I meant to say. Ahem!

Comment by Jen Harvey on April 3, 2013 at 9:57

Would be interesting to test how different exercise affects the brain in different ways.

I find when I run that my mood improves - it relaxes me and increases my general sense of well being.

With climbing the effect seems to be different. My concentration is slightly sharper. I can reatin my focus a little longer.

Not a scientific observation, obviously. But it makes me curious to know more.

Thanks for posting. Interesting.

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