Are extreme sports good for mental health?

The original Point Break planting the skydiving seed for many of us...

The original Point Break planting the skydiving seed for many of us...

People who take part in extreme sports are often called adrenaline junkies or just plain crazy.

But Adventure psychologist Eric Brymer, who has studied the risk-taking aspects of extreme sports, says it takes more than "crazy" to participate in extreme sports.

"In my opinion, it takes a great deal of task knowledge; knowledge of self and capabilities; knowledge of the environment and commitment to do an extreme sport effectively and not die – not really the make up of crazy people," he says.

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Brymer describes extreme sports as "when the most likely outcome of a mismanaged mistake or accident is death" but admits that focusing on the risk involved is distracting.

"The focus on risk is negative but extreme sports are fulfilling, health enhancing and about connecting with nature. Risk is just a by-product that needs to be managed," he explains.


A photo posted by Jim Thornburg (@jimthornburg) on

He also says there seems to be a link between good mental health and the acceptance of death, something extreme sports people must acknowledge and some of these activities are even being used to observe and possibly treat mental illness and emotional disorders.

Tandem skydiving is playing a lead role in this study protocol that looks to improve treatment for anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure from normally pleasurable activities. The researchers chose skydiving for its ability to produce a strong emotional response. Although most people feel fear during a skydive, that fear (boost of adrenaline) often turns to euphoria (increased dopamine).

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And in a 2009 study, researchers used skydiving to measure the anxiety levels of emotionally dysfunctional people. The results suggest that high-risk activities may meet the emotional needs of alexithymic persons.


When Dan McCulloch did his first tandem skydive in 2011, his life was in a rut. He says the movie Point Break planted the skydiving seed when he was 16 but he never put it at the top of his priorities.

"After I got divorced, I wanted to do something for me instead of always doing stuff for other people. I tried to get some mates to book in for a skydive with me but they said, 'you'd have to be crazy to do that'. So I went by myself," says McCulloch.

McCulloch had no idea how that decision would change his life. He's been a licensed skydiver since 2012 and has completed 325 solo jumps since.

The 35-year-old FIFO worker has suffered from mild depression and social anxiety since he was a teenager but says his mental health plan now includes skydiving.

"Skydiving gave me a sense of empowerment over my life. I'm scared of heights too so to face a fear and push past it is a great achievement," he says. "Fear was the cause a lot of my anxiety and depression. I still go through bouts of depression but they're not as intense and it doesn't stick around for as long."

McCulloch says skydiving gives him the chance to escape the worries of daily life and remain in the present moment.

"For that minute in freefall, I don't think of anything else, just what's happening right now," he says. "And it's made me a calmer person. It's made me realise everything is not so serious, and to take each moment as it comes."


A photo posted by Sky Diving ® (@skydivinggram) on


Exercise Physiologist Andrea Hah is one of Australia's best rock-climbers. The 31-year-old former gymnast has been climbing rock faces since she was 16 years old.

Hah says she was seeking freedom and something unpredictable when she discovered her passion for the extreme sport.

"As a child I did the same things everyday: went to school, home and to gymnastics, that's all. It was all very controlled and predictable," she says. "But climbing is unpredictable and varied. Each climb is different."

Hah moved from Melbourne to the Blue Mountains to be closer to quality climbing. It's not unusual for her to go rock-climbing up to five days a week. The combination of physical and mental challenge is what drives her.

"It's physically and mentally demanding, you have to stay focussed because if you don't accidents may happen," she says. "It's been scientifically proven that exercise improves mental health. And the physical side is that you get fitter, stronger and more capable to handle any kind of life challenge."



A photo posted by Richard Bowles (@runpreneur) on

Richard Bowles is a motivational speaker who encourages people to keep pushing towards greatness. And he has the goods to back it up.

Bowles is also a long distance extreme runner who has pushed himself to keep going for up to 95 kilometres a day, over rugged terrain, showering volcanoes and through war zones. That's the maxed-out version of a  "runner's high".

His all-weather, all-terrain, all or nothing drive has had global media describe him as a cross between Forrest Gump and Bear Grylls.

But Bowles says extreme running has affected his mental health negatively at times.

"I can't say it was depression but I definitely had similar symptoms, just feeling out of sorts and that came from me trying to figure out why I've done what I've done," he says.

The question of why came up so often for Bowles that he took a year off to explore the reasons. He spent this time with professionals like sports psychologists, hypnotherapists, personality experts and past-life regression therapists searching for the "why".

"I couldn't answer the question of why. I had no idea why I had done this stuff," he says.

After all his searching for complex reasons, Bowles realised the answer was quite simple: it feels good.  

"I learned that finding a deep, meaningful answer didn't matter and the whole point [of my sport] is because it makes me feel amazing. That's the point, to feel good," he says.

Admittedly, skydiving and other extreme activities may not be for everyone. But they do offer the opportunity to face fears, boost confidence, embrace life, and generally feel good overall.



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