• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

How adventure sports help fight depression

Researcher Patrick Boudreau says the “active meditation” of adventure sports is a way of boosting mental well-being.

It was while working as a physical education instructor with young people in Canada, taking them rock climbing and cross-country skiing, that Patrick Boudreau began to notice benefits beyond improved fitness and strength.

“These were students who were not attracted to the normal PE environment,” he says. “Through the semester of rock climbing, they became more self-confident, and with the outdoor climbing they seemed to gain extra confidence.”

Boudreau is now a researcher at the University of Otago where his PhD in sport and exercise psychology focuses on adventure recreation. He has continued to find evidence of a positive effect from taking part in higher-risk activities.

The common perception of extreme-sports participants such as mountain climbers, snow boarders and skydivers is as reckless thrill-seekers, but Boudreau believes something more significant is going on.

“The risk is a part of the attraction, for sure, but not the most important part,” he says. “Some people want to engage in adventure recreation because it allows them to enter a state of flow.”

Patrick Boudreau. Photo/Supplied

The notion of flow comes from US psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi whose theory is that we are happiest when we have been in a state of complete absorption in the activity we have been doing. To achieve a flow state, a task needs to be difficult enough that concentration is required but not so hard that we don’t have a sense of being in control.

“Flow is an active meditation,” says Boudreau. “The neural underpinnings are the same.”

He has published an analysis of 20 research articles on adventure sport and concluded that participating in it can be an important contributor to our physical and mental health.

Well-being improves after flow states – adults who spend more time in flow are happier and have higher self-esteem. It has also been associated with increased creativity, better resilience to stress and faster learning. And a 10-year study by management consultants McKinsey found that top executives reported being five times more productive when they were in flow.

A flow state can happen with many activities, but adventure sports appear to be a particularly effective way of getting in the zone. The brain dials down the prefrontal cortex, there is a rush of feel-good neurochemicals and the participant can lose their sense of time, even their sense of self.

US author and journalist Steven Kotler believes the state of flow that he experienced while surfing helped him heal from Lyme disease and he has now become focused on how this optimal state of consciousness may be a key to unlocking more human potential.

Boudreau believes the benefits of adventure sport outweigh the risks. “One study looked at how it can be used in mainstream intervention,” he says. “It helped reduce depression when people did indoor rock climbing and was on a par with other treatments being given such as CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy].”

He is studying the differing effects of indoor and outdoor pursuits, and is hoping that technology can be improved so he will be able to measure the brainwaves of rock climbers while they are out scaling mountains.

“We know that being in nature is good for us mentally and helps reduce anxiety,” he says. “Being surrounded by nature may help you get into that flow state.”

With the New Zealand landscape offering a generous choice of outdoor activities, Boudreau makes a good argument for more of us getting out there and trying something new. However, you are unlikely to experience flow until you are reasonably good at whatever you are doing.

“So, I wouldn’t suggest you base jump or white-water raft if you don’t have the skills and haven’t prepared properly,” says Boudreau. “It’s important that the difficulty is increased incrementally, starting with a low challenge and increasing to the point where you are totally focused on what you are doing.”

This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.