Looking for an activity that burns tons of calories, has been proven to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, tones your whole body, helps to boost your creativity, can reduce depression and gets you in touch with nature - and your friends (yep, all according to science)? Aren’t we all?
Well, we’d like to introduce you to climbing. Maybe you don’t know much about the sport. Maybe you’re scared to try it because you’re afraid of heights or worried that climbing is more dangerous than other activities. Good news there: according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine, indoor climbing - where newbies typically start - had the fewest injuries per 1,000 hours of participation when compared with other sports like football, sailing and basketball.
Climbing is becoming an activity for the whole family to embrace, with climbing centres catering to all skill levels cropping up all over the UK. In addition to the enjoyment of the workout itself, it’s a form of exercise that also gives you that satisfying feeling of overcoming an obstacle and challenging yourself to something new. Plus, have we mentioned it’s good for you?
“There are numerous health benefits. The obvious one is strength in the arms, shoulders and core, particularly the more you do and the harder the climbs you undertake,” says climbing expert and author Nigel Shepherd, who’s been a full-time mountain guide since 1979 with British Mountain Guides. “And, it’s good for the soul.”
Before you head off for that peak, or to your local climbing centre, check out these top ten tips for beginners looking to try the sport.
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Hiking is all about the buddy system in action, and spending time with friends as you climb is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the sport.
"Find yourself someone who shares your interest to climb and join a session for beginners at your local indoor climbing wall. You could hire an instructor privately for tuition," says BMG guide Nigel Shepherd, author of Climbing Manual: The Essential Guide to Rock Climbing
. With someone else holding the other end of your rope, climbing is the ultimate exercise in building trust with your friends.
You can also try downloading an app like Climb Buddy
, which can put you in touch with a climber near you.
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Climbing, like any other sport, comes with its own set of variations on the theme. Outdoors, there's traditional (trad) climbing, where you climb up unmarked routes using your own safety gear (not for beginners!) and sport climbing, where you make your way up rock faces that have pre-placed bolts that you can clip into. The daring can even attempt ice climbing - scaling frozen waterfalls and ice-covered mountains.
And then there's also bouldering: a type of rock climbing that can suit even those who aren't into heights.
"Bouldering is a sport where climbers go to rocks up to five metres in height (though not exclusively - higher boulders can be up to eight or more metres high and are known as 'highball problems')," explains Shepherd.
"The climb is a sequence of moves which may be quite simple or extremely technical, but the proximity to the ground means that ropes and other paraphernalia are unnecessary. Boulders possess only a soft crash mat for falling onto, a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag.
"Rock climbing is like bouldering but climbs are longer, require more safety equipment with a good knowledge of how to use it and a good head for heights."
When it comes to climbing, new recruits will be pleased to hear that they only thing they need to bring to the climbing centre is themselves.
Shepherd recommends that you wear "stretchy, comfortable clothing, such as you might wear to the gym." Any specialist equipment - harnesses, ropes, climbing shoes - are typically provided as part of the package.
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While climbing doesn't require any equipment other than a decent pair of climbing shoes you can rent, making it accessible to anyone, you can fulfill that lifelong fantasy of being like an Olympic gymnast and chalking up your hands before a climb (what, just us?). Chalk is helpful for improving your grip on surfaces, especially when hands are hot and sweaty, and acts as a drying agent to help you secure your hands in handholds.
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Sure, ascending a boulder takes a certain amount of physical strength and muscle power, but what about the mental resilience required? Recent research from the University of Arizona and University of Erlangen-Nuremberg
has found that bouldering can be a complementary therapy in treating depression. Climbing can also help you to conquer your biggest fears.
"It helps with overcoming anxieties, such a height above ground," says Shepherd. Nervous climbers will gain confidence the more they climb, and double and triple-checking all safety measures can help assuage their fears.
As you develop your rock climbing skills, you'll also be honing your concentration and problem-solving savvy.
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Sure, climbing involves core and upper body strength - it's a proper cardiovascular workout. But you don't need to be a weightlifter to manage it - in fact, a background in yoga or pilates is more likely to help a new recruit than one in bodybuilding.
"A good level of fitness is beneficial though not a prerequisite. Often really strong, muscly types flounder where someone less mighty might overcome problems by the application of good technique," explains Shepherd.
"If you have any upper body muscle strains or injuries, particularly in the hands, arms or shoulders, it’s probably better to wait until they are healed."
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In climbing, as in any other sport, there's a whole new lingo for beginners to master. Some fundamentals: your relationship with your belayer (the person on the ground supporting your weight as you climb up the wall or rock face, who lets out slack by releasing the belay as the climber goes up) is important. Belaying is one of the key skills in climbing.
Another term to master? Toproping. The climber is attached to one end of a rope which passes up through an anchor system. The other end of the rope passes down to the belayer. This is typically the first climbing style you'll learn as a newcomer to the sport.
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Climbing walls have been increasing in popularity the past several years, and you're likely to find one near you, wherever you happen to be in the UK. The BMC
lets you search for your nearest climbing wall by postcode or location.
Some to try? The Climbing Works
offers a bouldering-only experience in Sheffield for all ages, while The Arch
(with three locations around London) offers hundreds of new routes a week for constant inspiration. It's also open seven days a week, from 6:30am to 10:30pm, so you can fit your climb around your crazy work schedule.
Team the great outdoors with the climbing wall experience at ROKTFACE
in West Yorkshire, the UK's highest man-made outdoor climbing wall or try The Climbing Hangar
(in London or Liverpool), which specialises in coached taster sessions for newbies. You can also take yoga for climbers classes there or bring your seven-year-old during half-term. The Castle Climbing Centre
in north London offers indoor and outdoor experiences, while The Ice Factor
in Lochaber, Scotland, gives you a taste of winter adventures with its 400-tonne ice wall.
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Even if you do most of your climbing prep inside, one of the pleasures of climbing comes from being on an actual rock. Before you get outdoors, remember that things will feel different: you'll be in a less-controlled environment and your climb might feel more challenging (especially if you're getting soaked in a great British rainstorm). But look around you, take in the environment and enjoy.
According to Shepherd, one of the benefits of climbing is being "outdoors in the fresh air and in beautiful surroundings from high mountains to open moorland cliffs by the sea. And also the travel to more exotic locations away from the UK."
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Make climbing the centre of your social schedule, not just your latest fitness obsession. After you've been climbing indoors for a while and are ready for a new challenge, a local mountaineering club can introduce you to new friends and new landscapes.