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Rock climbing may seem like a niche sport, possibly one fraught with danger. After all, it involves scaling the side of a cliff or simulated rock wall. But experts say it offers participants a wide variety of physical and mental health benefits that are not always found in other sports. And more people are climbing than ever – thanks in part to hit flicks such as “Free Solo” and “The Dawn Wall.”
Climbing as a recreational sport became popular in the 1980s, with the nation’s first indoor climbing gym opening in Seattle. Today, there are more than 500 indoor climbing walls in the United States, powering a $493 million industry, according to market research firm IBISWorld.
The new Olympic sport features three disciplines: bouldering, which is performed on lower walls without ropes; speed climbing, where the fastest person to the top wins; and lead climbing, where the goal is to climb as high as possible within a time limit.
While rock climbing attracts thrill-seekers, others appreciate it as an excellent workout that also calms and sharpens the mind.
Here are eight reasons you may wish to give rock climbing a try.
Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
Increases cardiorespiratory fitness
Fast-moving sports such as running, soccer and cycling come to mind as workouts that elevate your heart rate. But climbing gets your heart pumping, too, as it involves a lot of pulling, pushing and lifting. And the more challenging the climb compared with your ability, the more of a workout.
Elite athletes with USA Climbing’s national team measured heart rates as high as about 150 beats per minute while they climbed, a pretty impressive number, said Zack DiCristino, the team’s physical therapist and medical manager. And indoor rock climbing was found to require the same energy expenditure as running 8 to 11 minutes per mile, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Builds muscle strength
It’s not surprising that hauling your body up a cliff wall builds muscle in your arms, but climbing is a full-body exercise. In addition to giving your biceps, triceps and deltoids a workout, it also calls on your abdominals, obliques, glutes, thighs, calves and more.
“You build a lot of upper-body strength when you climb, especially in the hands and fingers,” DiCristino said. “But a lot of people don’t realize that if you’re using proper technique, your lower body gets quite a workout, too, with all of the squatting and jumping.”
Improves flexibility and balance
Climbing requires you to be able to stretch your arms and legs high and wide, plus contort your body into unusual positions. And, of course, you need to balance on tiny footholds. The more you climb, the better your flexibility, balance and coordination.
“Climbing helps you be aware of your body and improves the way you move your body,” said Nick Wilkes, owner and head instructor at Devils Lake Climbing Guides, a guide service in Madison, Wisconsin.
Enhances memory and problem-solving
Much of rock climbing’s skill lies in determining and memorizing your climbing route beforehand. You also need to be able to problem-solve on the fly, changing your route or sequences if you encounter unexpected obstacles. “Climbing is very cognitive in nature,” DiCristino said.
Indeed, activities such as climbing were shown to boost working memory capacity by 50% in a study conducted by University of North Florida researchers. And women are better novice climbers than men, because they are used to solving physical problems with their brains, Wilkes noted.
Boosts communication skills
Communication skills are essential to your safety. Roped climbers have a companion on the ground called a belayer, who handles the rope through a device to manage the tension or slack, catch any falls and lower the climber. Throughout a climb, the duo must constantly communicate about such concerns as desired rope tension, when the climber wants to rest and when it’s time to come down.
“In order for me to be a better climber, I have to communicate clearly with the person belaying me so they know how I’m feeling, when I need a break or if I want to change the climb in any way,” said Lindsay Wenndt, a certified health coach, fitness trainer and owner of Atlanta-based Break Free Fitness.
“The same is true if I’m the one holding the rope,” she said. “It’s my job to give encouragement when my partner feels she can’t do a certain move, point out a more efficient way to complete a route and be her biggest cheerleader when she crushes a new obstacle or goal.”
Belaying – whether you’re the belayer or climber – involves a lot of trust since it’s essential to safety. “I have to trust my partner implicitly,” Wenndt said, knowing they’ve got her if she falls. “I also have to trust myself that I’m going to succeed in at least one thing on that route that I don’t think I can do.”
You can build trust more readily through climbing, compared with a lower-risk sport, Wilkes said. “Belaying someone, or being belayed, does have a life-or-death element to it,” he said. “This leads to a deeper experience for folks.”
Indoor climbing offers physical, social and psychological benefits, including camaraderie, according to a US Department of Veterans Affairs study on adaptive rock climbing for those with disabilities. And most climbers say the best thing about their sport is that it’s a tight-knit community, DiCristino said.
“When you go to a climbing gym, they often have sign-up boards where people are looking for a partner to climb with,” he said. “It’s a great way to meet people.”
Like many other forms of exercise, rock climbing can help battle the blues. Researchers in Germany found rock climbing to be successful psychotherapy for adults with depression, thanks to its physical, social and mental benefits. If you’re climbing outside, you may get an extra boost as research also has shown spending time in nature is a natural antidepressant.
Climbing is very reflective, too, Wilkes said. “It’s a great mirror that shows you how you deal with fear, disappointment and success, and how you deal with the rest of your life as well.”
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specializes in hiking, travel and fitness.