There’s no question that medical school is a long, hard climb. But a group of College of Medicine students has found that a literal climb is great for physical health and mental wellbeing – not to mention a lot of fun.
A dozen or so students have turned out for the appropriately dubbed “hangout” at the Little Rock Climbing Center on a Friday evening in early February. Harnessed to protective rope systems called belays, they scale the indoor facility’s 27-foot walls, following routes of varying difficulty. They reach for nubby, stone-like handholds and seek footing on other protrusions. They check their balance and continue climbing.
“This is definitely a major stress reliever,” freshman Madison Crosby said between climbs.
She appreciates the camaraderie as well as the exercise. “I was just talking to some of the M2s (sophomores) about classes I’ll be taking next year, so that has been really nice,” she said.
“One of the best things students can do for their mental health is simply getting regular exercise, and that’s exactly what our group wants to accomplish,” said sophomore Bryce Woods, who co-founded the Wellness through Climbing student organization with classmate Jace Bradshaw.
Both began climbing independently last summer. After discovering their mutual interest they started climbing together more often. “We were having a fantastic time and knew that a number of other students had also been climbing,” said Bradshaw. “We thought it would be great to bring everyone together and try to engage even more people.”
The classmates were also aware of the nationwide problem of stress-induced burnout among medical students. Like schools around the country, the College of Medicine has focused extensively on services to support student wellness. Under the leadership of Puru Thapa, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of psychiatry, the UAMS Student Wellness Program provides free, confidential clinical services for students along with extensive outreach activities such as talks on mindfulness and stress management.
Bradshaw and Woods organized the interest group late last year, recognizing that a climbing group would support the same goals. Matt Quick, M.D., an associate professor of pathology, signed on as the adviser.
“Medical school can be incredibly difficult, and it is easy for students to lose sight of what is important,” said Quick. “So often the focus becomes studying for the next test and students can neglect themselves. What makes this group so special is that climbing is not only mental, but also physical therapy for stress. Bryce and Jace should be commended for taking the initiative in setting up this incredibly valuable opportunity for their peers.”
The group aims to have a couple of hangouts each month, along with informational meetings on topics such as climbing basics, the benefits of exercise on mental health and wilderness medicine, which centers on providing care in low-resource environments and is the focus of another active interest group on campus. Woods and Bradshaw are interested in organizing outdoor climbing excursions someday and expanding their membership to include students from other UAMS colleges.
Meanwhile, there is the challenge of each climb and the satisfaction of persevering.
“My favorite thing about climbing so far has been that almost every time I go, I see improvement and I get to beat my last ‘personal record,’” said Woods. “One day I’ll be unable to complete a really hard route, then a few days later I’m back at it and able to climb it.”
Woods laughs when asked if medical school is something like scaling a towering wall.
“We hear all kinds of analogies about medical school, but it really is like we are just steadily climbing up a mountain – a ridiculously huge mountain,” Woods said. “At some point we’ll be at the top and be able to look back on all of the hard work we’ve done and the support from friends and family that got us here!”