I believe that one of the best ways to maintain a healthy level of personal fitness is to find a sport you enjoy, rather than a workout you can tolerate. I think it’s really common these days for people to think that the only way to get fit is to join a gym, resolve to hit the elliptical three times a week, and maybe do some weight training, or circuit training, or whatever.
Although working out like this will keep you fit, the ultimate problem is that it’s boring. Have you ever seen a bunch of people on an elliptical, or walking on a treadmill, who appear to be enjoying it? Hardly! For most people it’s mostly a slog; a slow process of watching your workout timer run out and trying not to collapse.
Sports are different. Sports trick you into getting fit, in some pretty awesome ways:
- Intellectual Stimulation – Any sport worth playing involves an intellectual strategy required to win. This makes things interesting, and provides a distraction from the physical effort. You hardly even notice that you’re working out or working hard, because you’re so focused on the game, and you can put a lot more energy and effort into physical activity than you would be able to otherwise.
- Team Focus – A sport is not really a sport without some kind of team. We work harder to “win” when there are others around to motivate us and share in our success.
I think everyone should have at least one sport that they love and that they do regularly. While I enjoy a wide variety of sports, personally I think rock climbing is my favorite, and here’s why:
1) Climbing is an excellent workout.
Climbing requires the use of your whole body: Your fingers to hold on to the rock, your biceps and back muscles to pull yourself up, your toes to step on tiny feet, your calves to step up on your feet, your quads to stand up on your legs, and your abs / core to maintain body stability. In short, it’s a really good anaerobic workout that is going to give you a strong back, strong biceps, strong abs, and yes, killer forearms =)
Not only that, studies have shown that rock climbing is classified somewhere between excellent to superior in terms of its aerobic profile, especially during sustained climbs. It’s not at all uncommon to find yourself breathing hard both during a hard route as well as afterward.
Lastly, sustained climbing burns quite a few calories. Estimates vary from about 400 to 800 calories burned per hour, and of course it depends on your weight and the amount of exertion, but a day of climbing can definitely help burn excess calories, especially if you spend all day climbing a multipitch route.
2) Climbing is extremely intellectually stimulating.
Most non-climbers think of climbing as being mainly a matter of having strong upper-body strength and muscling your way up a rock face. Honestly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although upper-body strengh is important, there are two factors that are just as important or more for being successful on the rock: technique and mental focus.
Climbing technique can be thought of as any physical mechanic used to make any given climb easier. There are innumerable techniques used to achieve this, but they all basically achieve the same goal of conserving your strength for as long as possible. Efficiency of movement is everything. Some keystones of effective technique are:
- Put as much weight on your legs as possible. You can always tell the new climbers from the experienced ones, especially guys, because they try to just muscle up every route with no regard whatsoever for their feet. And then they are surprised when they can only climb a couple of routes and then burn out.
- Don’t overgrip. Climbing can be pretty scary at first, which is why almost every new climber tends to grip the rock like they’re hanging on for dear life, even if they’re toproping (and therefore relatively safe). Fighting this urge and using the least necessary force to use each hold is an important technique to master.
- Use balance to your advantage. Balance is everything in climbing, so much so that I like to think of climbing as vertical dancing. Typically forward movement involves balancing your body weight between three points of contact (hands and feet) and using the free hand or foot to move upward. Changing your body position and balance allows you to weight the holds in an optimal direction and expend the least possible amount of effort.
- Sequence is everything. Moving your limbs and shifting your body weight in a specific, sequenced, strategic way is of tantamount importance, especially on bouldering routes, which typically require such a careful technique, strategy, and sequence that they are called boulder problems – climbing them is like solving a puzzle.
3) Climbing makes you feel like a badass.
Climbing is pretty exhilirating. It’s hard not to feel awesome when you’ve just sent a route that you’ve been working on for weeks or months. It’s also hard not to feel like a badass when you do a multipitch, climb hundreds of feet in a day, and live to tell the tale.
A big part of climbing has to do with facing your fears. When leading a route, you sometimes get into situations where you are above the last bolt (facing a potentially big fall), and you have to master your fear in order to make the moves necessary to reach the next bolt and clip your rope into it. Looking fear in the face and giving it the middle finger in order to make the next clip is the ultimate adrenaline rush.
I mentioned mental focus in the last item, and it’s just as important as physical fitness and technique. Facing your fears, visualizing success, and committing completely to the climb you’re on are all necessary to send your hardest projects. When you’re climbing, there’s no time to think about the bills you have to pay or any other worldy concerns – it’s just you and the rock.
Climbing sometimes reminds me of Fight Club. It doesn’t really matter what your boss thinks of you during the work week. He doesn’t know that on the weekends you’re scaling rock faces, earning cuts and bruises as badges of honor to show that you tangled with the rock and you won. In other words, after climbing, everything else in your life gets the volume turned down.
4) Climbing gives you a great excuse to visit beautiful areas that you never would otherwise.
Climbing areas are almost always beautiful areas. Consider these photos:
But without climbing, I would have no real reason to go visit these places, or at least not a compelling enough reason to do so.
When I was younger I used to go camping a lot with my family, and although it was kind of interesting being out in nature, I found it pretty boring sitting around in a tent or camper all day, with no real purpose for being there. But climbing gives you a really good excuse to go camping somewhere – you camp in order to climb! So instead of reading books, playing cards, or fishing during the day (yawn), you get to scale some beautiful rock walls instead =)
5) Climbing is a relatively inexpensive sport.
Okay, so climbing is not the cheapest sport in the world, but it’s not the most expensive one either. Outdoor sport climbing is pretty much free once you have some basic gear:
- Climbing shoes – $100
- Harness – $50
- Helmet – $50
- Chalk Bag – $20
- Quickdraws – $120 (splittable)
- Rope – $150 to $200 (splittable)
Typically a group of two climbers only need one set of quickdraws and one rope between them, so that makes the per-person gear cost around $350 and you’re set for at least a year or two.
Other than that, you only need to pay for food, gas, and camping fees when you can’t avoid them. In fact, climbers are famous (or infamous) for being so committed to climbing that they often resort to dirtbagging. Few other sports have this kind of anti-materialistic, spend-nothing mentality. And unlike ski bums, who are really just skiiers / snowboarders who have jobs near the slopes in order to pay for their lift tickets and their apartment, climbers can actually get away with spending next to nothing for their sport.
6) Climbing can be as individual or as communal as you want it to be.
Some sports, like baseball for example, require a cadre of people to play at once. You simply cannot play without getting 18 people together at the same place and time. Typically climbers organize themselves into two-person teams, where one person belays while the other climbs, but this is not the only way to climb.
If you’d rather climb as an individual, you can always go bouldering at a local rock gym (if there is one in your area), and for some, that is enough. Another option, if you’ve got the gear and the skills to do so, is called rope soloing, where you set up a system to auto-belay yourself while you climb a route.
On the other hand, if you want to bring several of your friends out climbing, you can do that too as long as everyone has rock shoes and a harness. Typically when sport climbing, one or two people will take turns leading routes to set them up on toprope, and then everyone else takes turns climbing the routes that are set up.
7) Climbing is easy to train for.
Don’t live super close to the rock? Live in a city and have a steady job? No problem – climbing gyms exist in nearly every urban area, at least in the States, and are an excellent way to train for climbing when you can’t make it out to a real crag. Compare that to snowboarding or surfing, where there’s really no way to practice other than finding a mountain with snow on it or an ocean with waves.
And again, unlike most team sports, you don’t need a cadre of friends to practice climbing, all you need is a bouldering gym and some shoes.
8) Climbers are typically some of the nicest, most relaxed people you will ever meet.
There are jerks and egoists in nearly every sport, including climbing, but for the most part climbers are very laid back and easy to get along with. It’s part of the anti-materialistic, naturalist mindset of climbers. It’s pretty typical when bouldering indoors to share some banter with your neighbors about how to climb certain routes, and it’s also very typical when climbing outside to take turns on routes and share a bit.
I spent most of last winter (2010 -> 2011) camping and climbing in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, and it was an awesome experience, in no small part because of the community there. I met dozens of awesome climbers that were all great people to hang out with when we weren’t on the rock. It’s typically pretty easy to find climbing partners in the popular climbing areas, and not at all uncommon to run into some climbers you’ve met before in different areas. Other sports just don’t have this kind of community.