Monday, May 16, 2011

Is Rock Climbing an Exercise Disorder?

Hell no it’s not! But I got your attention. I recently got my psychology panties in a bunch when I read an article about the upcoming revision of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) due out in 2013. The DSM is considered the bible reference for diagnosing anything considered a mental disorder and creates lists of diagnostic criteria to determine whether or not your symptoms are a disorder.

On the list for consideration as new disorders is including anger, healthy eating (yes all you vegetarian and/or wheat free folks out there), pms, teenage eccentricity (isn’t that all of us?) and having a high sex drive. Really?! Will any of us be normal after this revision? Also on the list is a push to refine eating disorders to include and single out exercise disorders such as “Compulsive Exercising.” Compulsive Exercising is characterized by scheduling your life around exercise, missing work to exercise, feeling depressed if you don’t exercise, exercising even if you’re hurt, and not taking rest days. Know any climbers who sound like that? Of course you do!

So how many psychiatrists out there would diagnose hard core-unemployed-full time-live out of your van- climbers as “compulsive” and give you a prescription medication for it? I’d be willing to bet there are more than a few. If you add onto that any drive to maintain a healthy weight as any sort of motive for climbing then you will for sure fall under that Exercise Disorder category. This over pathologizing is insane! Just wait until the committees for the DSM hear about soloists and base jumpers. We could call them Compulsive Exercisers with a Risk Perception Disorder.

When the powers that be start trying to refine and define new mental disorders it becomes much more difficult to tell the difference between health and pathology. There is a very fine line between health conscious athletes committed to training vs. the obsessed exerciser with rigid eating and health ideals. That fine line is a very subjective view based upon who is looking.

So what does this mean for you as a climber and a possible consumer of mental health services? How can you tell if you have a “disorder?” By definition a set of symptoms is not considered a mental disorder unless you experience a marked impairment in one or more areas of daily functioning. Meaning your set of symptoms affect your relationships, your ability to care for yourself, your work, school, etc. If you have symptoms of someone’s idea of a mental disorder but you feel fine and are functioning fine in society then what’s the problem?! There isn’t one. Only when climbing unbalances the rest of your daily functioning can it even begin to be considered a source of any problem. As far as I’m concerned climbers are usually the healthiest, both physically and mentally, people I’ve ever met. So just stay in balance folks.

What are your thoughts? Know anyone with a climbing disorder?

References for this post:
Article by the Washington Post
Exercise Bulimia Definition


  1. I don't think the exercise disorder applies to climbing at all. I don't know of any climbers who fit the description. (I live in Boulder, CO where we are bursting at the seams with climbers.) I've heard of competing climbers in the past being extreme about their diets. I know climbers get pretty obsessed with the "sport", but why climbing becomes addictive and becomes a lifestyle is a different kettle of fish (and certainly worthy of examination by someone not seeking to stigmatize climbers for their behavior by finding another disorder label). I also don't know a single climber who climbs for exercise strictly; I doubt you can find one anywhere. There just are much more practical means of getting exercise. Someone who has the exercise disorder will likely do something more practical like calisthenics or running or using an eliptical for hours (seen that at 24 Hour Fitness by a female who seemed to hide her body under too many layers of baggy clothing).

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Hello to Boulder! I love Boulder - used to live there. I agree with you that rock climbing is not an exercise disorder. However, my original concern with the editing of the DSM is that it would give license to naive non-climbing therapists to see the climbing culture as something else.

    I like your distinction of climbing for exercise vs climbing as a lifestyle. I too have never met someone who climbs just for exercise. But, I have met some pretty obsessive climbers who have been known to take things a little far. Whether or not that qualifies as an exercise disorder or something else is a case by case basis. I just hope these edits don't make it into the DSM.

    Thanks for reading!


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