Repetitive motions help the brain reorganise its neural pathways, but simply socialising and sharing can be a self-confidence booster, too
Extreme sports perhaps wouldn’t be your first port of call when rehabilitating a traumatic brain injury (TBI), but then Sophie Charles isn’t the kind of person to let a little matter of height, exposure and intricate rope work dampen her enthusiasm for evangelising the therapeutic benefits of rock climbing for anyone, especially those living with specific neurological challenges. Together with the Castle Climbing Centre in London she, an experienced rock-climbing instructor, has crafted a series of sessions aimed at anyone who struggles with the activities of daily living many of us take for granted. “I love climbing because everyone can do it,” she says.”‘And what I like about getting other people into climbing – especially people who have physical and mental challenges – is showing them what they can do. I simply don’t like the word can’t,- and a lot of people with disabilities hear that word frequently.”
The sessions, which begin on 23 October, will run twice a month, with a maximum of four people per session and cost £30 a person for one-and-a-half hours’ instruction. There’s also the opportunity to progress to one-on-one customised “fun and therapy” sessions, combining climbing with input from a personal trainer and chiropractor.
For the past five years, Charles has worked with people living with a range of disabilities including cerebral palsy, autism and brain stem issues so the sessions aim to be inclusive for all. Aside from dangling by your fingertips on a cliff edge, rock climbing promotes hand-to-eye coordination, awareness of balance, physical strength, communication and sensory awareness. Because key moves are learned and repeated constantly, it’s an activity which encourages neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganise its neural pathways in response to the environment; essentially the more you use a muscle, the stronger it will get.
“Most folks would benefit from these activities but post-TBI they are particularly vital because they engage functions and skills that have been injured,” says Madeleine Sayko, co-founder of Cognitive Compass, a US-based company that assists people post-TBI to thrive in the workplace. “The tendency for many with TBI is to withdraw which does not stimulate cognitive ability.”
Harry Coughlan, 29, has been climbing with Charles for a few years. He was born with agenisis of the corpus collosum, meaning the fibres which join the two halves of his brain never developed and he has complex, lifelong needs. The benefits Coughlan discovered from climbing were immediate. “He had to concentrate, had to sort out left and right, learn how to tie a safety harness and had repeated challenges with balance and coordination,” says his father John. “Climbing brings greater physical agility and general self-confidence. He gets great satisfaction and enjoyment from it.”
According to research by disability charity Scope, 52% of disabled people said they exercised rarely or never, yet 70% said they would like to exercise more. This figure rose to 81% for those aged 18-34. Reasons for this lack of participation range from the difficulty of accessing classes or courses of a suitable level to a desire to avoid being patronised or filling the role of the “odd one out”. Climbing has a reputation for being an environment where everyone is welcome, from the gritstone of the Peak District to the granite and limestone of the Alps.
“I took up climbing for fitness but the social side kept me here,” says Charles. “Climbing is basically walking up the stairs without holding on so anyone can have a go and be treated like a human being. It’s not about segregation and difference.” This is important. Social isolation plays a major role in hampering rehabilitation after a TBI, while people born with neurological issues can find integration daunting.
“Steady, controlled, repetitive action is very positive and it needs to be goal-orientated,” says neuropsychologist Dr June Gilchrist, a trustee of charityHeadway, which works to improve life after brain injury. “Things like this climbing course can be lifelines for people because it combines goal-oriented challenge and achievement with the positivity and interaction which is so vitally important for rehab.”
Kris Saunders-Stowe, a wheelchair user who started up Wheely Good Fitnessoffering fitness classes for people with a range of disabilities, agrees: “To be part of a unit and able to participate in and do something that has nothing to do with your disability is incredibly empowering. You have something to talk about and share. Ultimately you can do anything because it’s about the support you have and the belief you have in yourself.”