As anyone who does them regularly will tell you, adventure sports make you happy. For the most part that is – we all have bad days when things don’t go according to plan. But overall the effect is a very positive one. Which begs the question: can adventure sports help with your mental health?
The short answers is yes, they can. But the whole truth is a little bit more complicated than that. The umbrella term ‘mental health’ covers a huge spectrum of conditions, states, and experiences. There is no catch all cure or remedy in many cases. And the road to recovery is long, often hard and can have obstacles in the way.
What works for one person might not work for another. And there is no real substitute for medical and pastoral care – generally in the form of treatment or counselling.
However, there is also compelling evidence to suggest that exercise, focus and goal setting is of benefit to people suffering with mental health issues. And that the enjoyment and adrenaline rush of doing something exciting improve your happiness, not just when doing it but long term.
Here are some of the main reasons why adventure sports make you happy. And why that can help on your journey to better mental well being.
Exercise, especially of the rigorous kind, reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body. It also stimulates endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. For people suffering from anxiety and depression, this is like a natural high that can help to break negative cycles.
When outside, studies have shown that people’s mood is generally better and more positive, and cognitive function can actually improve. It’s an old adage that a bit of fresh air will help, but there is some definite truth behind it.
Being around nature can also give you a mental boost. Humans need to feel a connection to the natural world. Nature moves at its own pace, which is a healthy reminder for us to slow down – just not on your mountain bike or snowboard obviously! But being out there on the waves, slopes or trail is a great way to get closer to the natural world.
A lot of anxiety issues are caused by a lack of self-confidence and esteem, both of which can be improved by adventure sports. Now we’re not saying that a tandem skydiving experience is going to give you the bullet-proof confidence of a movie star.
But practicing adventure sports that you previously thought were out of reach, and learning new skills will improve confidence in every day life. Which will help to reduce levels of anxiety.
Getting fit isn’t just about making a physical transformation to your body (although that can have its own positive effects), it’s also about improving emotional and mental well-being. Most people exercise not because it makes them look good but because it makes them feel good. And there are very obvious scientific reasons why.
The Harvard School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by around 26%. That’s a significant improvement. Plus, in addition to relieving the symptoms of depression, a regular schedule of exercise can prevent you from relapsing.
Exercise promotes neural growth, reduces inflammation and creates new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. This also serves as an effective anti-anxiety treatment, as well as having positive benefits for people with PTSD or other trauma.
Mental health problems can be difficult to diagnose and treat because they are largely internal, and often without obvious symptoms. The problem can therefore feel very difficult to talk about, and can end up getting bigger and bigger in your own head. Again, adventure sports can offer a solution.
Having something to focus on that is external can help distract from the internalised problems. Whether that distraction is climbing a mountain, landing a paraglider safely or focusing on scuba diving breathing techniques. The immediacy of the situation stops you worrying about other things.
Adventure sports often involve social interaction. While there are solo pursuits, for the most part you take part in groups. This element of interaction can help prevent feelings of loneliness, improves cognitive interaction and sharpens memory.
Many people make new friends when learning a new adventure sport. Take mountain biking lessons, do a snowboarding course or go on beginner surfing holidays and the intense experience with new people often means you make friends for life. This adds a new support network to your bubble, and could improve your social life beyond doing action sports.
While all this action, activity, fun and excitement can, and in most cases will, improve your happiness we also need a word of warning – adventure is not the only answer. Action sport athletes are not immune to mental health issues, as was highlighted by the tragic passing of pro snowboarder Ellie Soutter.
The risks involved with adventure sports are that you put too much pressure on yourself to improve or perform. This can lead to unhappiness if you don’t hit your goals.
Plus if you can only find happiness with your action sport buzz of adrenaline it is not a good sign of balanced well being. As what happens if injury, the end of a season, old age or something else stops you getting your fix?
So, it’s important to stress that while adventure sports make you happy, taking up skiing, skydiving or scuba diving is not in itself a cure. The path to good mental health crosses many bridges, including counselling, medication, support groups and making the changes you need to get better.
It is this last point where adventure sports can really help. They can open the door to new pursuits and passions that positively impact most people. Overall action sports can play a significant part of your happiness, and can help people become, and stay, mentally healthy.
We hope you found this article about the BetterHelp mental health campaign useful. How do adventure sports make you happy? Let us know in the comments. And check out our action sport courses if you want to learn something new.