How Skiing Can Improve Your Mental Health?
This blog post was originally written for the Summit Ski School Blog at the end of the 19/20 winter.
The overall health benefits of sports and exercise are well documented. It is common knowledge that regular exercise keeps your body healthy. Cardiovascular workouts improve your heart health and different exercises will strengthen different muscle groups. Skiing is no different to this, any holiday skier knows that a week on the slopes will work your quads and that skiing a run of bumps will certainly increase your heart rate.
However, what might be less well known are the effects of exercise and sport on our mental health, the advantages of which are becoming increasingly recognised in modern medicine.
Firstly, what is mental health? Very basically, it is the health of our mind. “Mental Health” refers to our cognitive, behavioural, and emotional wellbeing – it is all about how we think, feel, and behave.
Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise is associated with lowering the sympathetic nervous system, which is directly linked with lower levels of anxiety (1) and a review of 25 studies from the University of Toronto demonstrated that baseline physical activity reduced the risk of subsequent depression. (2)
The environment around us plays a very important role in our mental wellbeing. There is no doubt that our society has become more urbanised over the past century. In 1960 only 33% of the worlds' population lived in urban areas, by 2007 it had risen to 50% and current estimates have projected that by 2025 we will reach 60% (3). With this comes the dichotomy between our modern lives and our primate instincts to be in nature. Those of us drawn to the mountains have come to the conclusion that we are fundamentally happier when we embrace those instincts.
Indeed, the science backs us up; studies have shown that when exposed to nature, individuals suffering from mild to major depressive disorders exhibited considerable improvements in mood as well as feeling more motivated and energised (4). Recent investigations also revealed that being outdoors reduced stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol, and consequently lowered the chances of associated health concerns such as hypertension and tachycardia (5). Lastly, access to a natural environment improves memory functions; a study on the cognitive benefits of nature found that subjects who took a nature walk did better on a memory test than the subjects who walked along urban streets (6).
We know skiing as a sport can help our mental health, but how can ski lessons aid that?
As a ski instructor with 8 years of experience, I know that when done correctly, learning to ski, or developing an already existing skill level, can be incredibly beneficial to our mental health.
Skiing can produce an avalanche of emotions. From happiness, excitement and joy to fear, frustration and anxiety. The goal of any instructor is to give you more of the positive and less of the negative. We do this by using our experience and knowledge to discover what is going to benefit each client the most based on their goals. The most obvious way that we deliver a session is by providing technical input to improve someone's skiing. We can also change the tactical choices someone makes, or check that their equipment is suitable. Whilst those are the most obvious roles of a ski instructor, I believe that our greatest strength is the ability to help manage the rush of emotions that comes with this incredible sport.
In the eager 8-year-old, we help to stoke the fire of excitement and wonder that has been ignited.
In the self-conscious teenager, we help to reassure that the mountains are a place of freedom where the concerns of growing up can be left behind.
In the anxious learner, we lend our confidence to help manage their fear and our experience to navigate the mountain safely.
In the overwhelmed professional, we facilitate an escape from their everyday pressures by channelling their focus into skilful skiing.
In the enthusiastic athlete, we fuel ambition and channel their drive into progress.
Everyone experiences skiing differently, but one of the most common emotions that we are employed to help with is fear, so let’s take a closer look at the “anxious learner”.
The Anxious Learner
Skiing can be scary!
You’re sliding down a slippery mountain on two slippery planks. This will always be the case, regardless of your ability level. Some people are comfortable accepting this. Others are not.
Skiing is good for your psychological ability to deal with fear because there are lots of parallels with everyday life. For example, I spend a lot of time telling clients to let their skis point down the hill. For most people this seems completely counterintuitive, it is the opposite of what they want to do, but it is important to let the skis travel in an “S” shape, not a “Z” shape. It’s scary, you have to embrace the uncontrolled moment when your skis start to accelerate down the hill. It requires trust, both in your instructor and your own abilities, but if you do commit, the rest of the turn flows beautifully into the next.
This mirrors what is required to let go of our fears in life; we must embrace whatever scares us and use it as a catalyst for forward momentum, to move past the fear that is holding us back.
Here are some of the different techniques I use to help my clients embrace their fear:
Identifying the fear - What is it that makes you feel scared right now? Is it something to do with the slope we are on? Is it something to do with the task I have set? Is it to do with the number of people around us? There are dozens of things that people can be scared of while skiing, but if you can discover the source of the fear, it gives you a weapon with which to defeat it.
Find a focus - Sometimes there are just too many things happening, both externally and internally. I find that if you can find one thing to focus on, the rest starts to melt away. Something that often works is breathing or counting your way through the turn.
Follow someone - It’s the classic ski instructor go to, but when a client’s brain is in turmoil, I find that often the easiest thing is to have them follow the "big blue blob" in front of them.
Distraction - I am lucky enough to ski in front of one of the most beautiful and iconic mountains in the world, it’s big, it’s pointy, and it’s great to use as a distraction when clients are panicking. However, regardless of whether you ski in front of the Matterhorn or not, there is going to be some beauty around you, so if what is going on inside becomes too much, take a moment to look at what is outside.
Humour - If all else fails, I have a large collection of rather terrible jokes that always seem to help.
The following is a quote from one of my clients about how learning to ski over the last 3 seasons has helped her learn about her own fear.
“I came to skiing after two major operations and crippling fear and anxiety about trusting myself and my body. So there I was on a ski slope with a teacher who was asking me to move into my fear, to explore it in all its different manifestations: trust, faith, control and letting go. That’s what skiing requires and it takes a very astute teacher to transfer that lesson in the least fearful way possible.”
Skiing can benefit us all in so many ways; whether you are new to skiing or not, why not see how a ski lesson can increase those benefits for you?