The Health Benefits of Rock Climbing as a Sport or Exercise Activity
This is a brief look into the physiological, mental and fitness benefits, long and short term, of Rock Climbing. For both indoor and outdoor climbing, with children and adults alike.
The way I see it, if you climb a lot, you can eat loads of yummy food and not put on unhealthy weight. That's pretty cool. Along with other stuff like, reducing risk of Stroke, Heart Disease, Diabetes and Cancer. Need I go on... well, yes. Better sleep patterns, relieved stress, reduced depression, and even a lower chance of suffering dementia. So here are some specific points that relate directly to climbing.
Rock Climbing is one of the most adaptable exercises to take part in. While training, my friends and I build rough, or sometimes very specific, programs to achieve a goal we have. Here are a few examples of the differences: 'I need to be able to hang on for 1 hour, doing fairly easy moves throughout', or 'there is one move I can't do that is too hard, so I'm training my max strength and power for that move'. As you can see, the first example requires pure stamina training, which may include cardio intervals or training for a higher lactate threshold, where as the second example purely requires doing a couple of hard moves at the absolute limit of the persons climbing ability. This will build muscle and strength with it. All of these different types of fitness are very achievable through the medium of rock climbing. Other examples, might include flexibility, dynamic explosive power, calf endurance, mental calmness, anxiety management, etc etc.
Whilst climbing, I always have a raised heart rate. My resting rate is about 58 +or- 4 depending on current fitness. After warming up (running, press ups, skipping, dynamic stretching etc) and climbing a few routes, that rate is usually up to about 130bpm. During a hard climb, I'll probably be breathing extremely heavily sucking in as much oxygen as possible, sweating profusely and building a fair amount of lactic acid in my muscles. I might then have a chance to recover and drop that heart rate, clear out some lactic and replenish muscle energy, before pushing on with the climb. So climbing must work out our cardiorespiratory system, the paper referenced found this to be true, and also passed evidence that it's probably not just cardio (heart rate) that can be exercised through climbing, but due to the strong contractions of arm muscles, the climber is working aerobic fitness and an-aerobic fitness too. (Sheel AW, Seddon N, Knight A, McKenzie DC, R Warburton DE - Physiological responses to indoor rock-climbing and their relationship to maximal cycle ergometry - 2003)
After climbing a couple of times a week, for a few weeks, people nearly always report being able to do much harder moves and routes, this could be due to technique or overall fitness factors, but from what I've seen, these new climbers can also perform better in strength related exercise such as pull-ups. There is apparently no particular shape or size you need to be, to fair well at climbing. Research has been done (surmised in A W Sheel - Physiology of sport rock climbing - 2004) that shows that elite climbers don't vary significantly in body fat, flexibility, or arm length to other sports athletes. But the difference in performance is due to trainable factors. These include grip strength and bent arm hanging endurance. I find after bouldering (climbing very short routes) for a sustained training period of a few weeks, I put on weight which I feel is muscle in the big upper body groups. I can then always do bigger harder more powerful moves on the climbs, and achieve more pull-ups on a bar. Climbing really is a great way to build upper body and core strength without having to go to a gym and pump iron.
Stamina and Endurance:
Climbing a few times per week, quickly leads to increases in the amount of time your can hold on for, as well as how long a session you can keep going at. At the start of the climbing season, I can usually hold on for about 2 minutes, doing a very repetative movement exercise up and down on some wooden slats. After a few weeks, this area of fitness shows my biggest gains... I can hold on for 3 minutes, with less rest between sets. When I go running to try and improve my climbing stamina, I benefit almost immediately. So in reverse I believe the same to be true, that when climbing for longer periods of time (>10 minutes), a persons overall fitness and stamina will increase. D. Macleod et al. - Physiological determinants of climbing-specific finger endurance and sport climbing performance - 2007, found that climbers had a significant ability to re-oxygenate blood during a rest phase enabling them higher performance than non-climbers. This reoxygenation leads to longer endurance in climbing and other exercise. (C M Mermier - Energy Expenditure and physiological responses during indoor rock climbing - 1997)
There is no doubt that climbing is an all body work out, recruiting some of the large muscle groups which burn plenty of calories. There is a whole mixture of information on this, but calorie usage generally comes to about 10 Kcal per minute. So when climbing at my local indoor wall, I use about 35 per climb... In a session I'll look to be doing about 10 routes, so 350 Kcal. When climbing hard routes, there is less climbing going on, and more resting... but when I train for stamina, not touching the ground for between 10-15 minutes per go, I'll be burning off about 750 Kcal per session. With two or three goes a week.
Ease of Participation:
Heading to a local indoor climbing wall to get started is one of the easiest things to do. They nearly all have a great beginner courses to show you how to safely climb. The new people I chat with at the wall, nearly always either found their partners on that course, or online with websites such as ukclimbing.com. Once familiar with the knots and techniques, the next progression may be to get on an outdoor climbing course with a qualified instructor such as myself. There are also a bunch of climbing clubs all over the country, always looking to welcome new members. It really is one of the most sociable hobbies going, and its addictiveness shows in the number of new indoor climbing walls opening all over the country.