Exercise That Doesn't Feel Like Exercise?

Exercise That Doesn't Feel Like Exercise?
Photo by Daniela Araya / Unsplash

After reading the title you may be asking yourself: What form of exercise could he be possibly talking about? Let me zoom out a bit and give you a little back story (not too long, I wouldn't want you to get bored after all)

I have been in some sort of sport all my life. Sometimes multiple at once, at which I would be average at best, and sometimes a singular one where I would devote all of my focus and be slightly better than the average. (Who would have thought that a single focus on something would yield better results huh) I went through the usuals: Football (or Soccer despite my hatred for that word), Basketball, Running, and various others. None of them stuck, until I moved on to weightlifting. (Not the Olympic discipline where people throw hundreds of kilos overhead, just merely lifting weights.)

I started weightlifting with my best friend, so naturally, everything was fun at the start. He was way better than me (still is, and will always be) at lifting more and more, so I had a good competitive matchup for many years. For a few years, I was slowly engulfed in the Irish lifting scene, more specifically Powerlifting. I competed a few times, won the occasional medal (probably for attendance, who am I kidding), and got to hang out with my closest friends all the time. What's not to love?

If at this stage you are wondering how the hell weightlifting does not feel like a sport, it's a valid thought. Lifting weights or in my case powerlifting for many years felt like a sport as every session was immensely demanding on the body. Yep, you guessed it: This article is not centered around powerlifting. I stopped lifting weights in 2022 because I wanted a change. Workouts didn't feel good anymore and they began to feel like a chore, so I decided to take a break from my nearly ten-year tenure. What to do next? I played a bit of football again, which was great as I managed to ramp up my cardio a bit (something which weightlifters love to neglect) but due to health reasons, I had to stop this too.

My brother has been rock climbing for a few years. To be more distinct he did bouldering (I will explain this term in just a few seconds in case a big '?' just popped up over your head) I dabbled in it here and there. I enjoyed it for the most part but I could never commit to it as lifting weights and rock climbing do not complement each other very well, and I was fully committed to lifting so nothing ever came of my bouldering career. Until now.

What is rock climbing (and bouldering)? To put it simply, Rock climbing is an activity that involves ascending a steep rock face, either outdoors or indoors, using your hands, feet, and body weight to find and hold onto small ledges, cracks, and other features. If you think of rock climbing you are probably picturing someone going up the side of a cliff with a harness and ropes jumbled all over their body to secure them in the event of a fall. Bouldering is essentially that, minus all the equipment (except the shoes and chalk, for grip), and on much smaller 'cliffs'. A bouldering route is usually between one and six meters. A roped climb with equipment can be everything above or slightly below this height. I will be referring to bouldering and climbing alike in this article, apologies if this leads to confusion. Contrary to popular belief, climbing is pretty safe as long as you have the right gear and follow the rules. As bouldering involves shorter routes, the drops are smaller, so if you do take a fall it will be onto a butter-soft giant mattress-like pad.

So, there I was - retired from lifting, standing at my local climbing hall again about to sign up. The guy who was signing me up asked me mandatory safety questions for a new member joining. He asked me 'What are three things you should not do when climbing?'. I knew two for certain because I had climbed before:

  1. Don't jump from the top of a route to avoid injury and crushing people.
  2. Never climb directly above or below another climber.

The guy started eyeballing me profusely and I started to panic. 'What's a third thing you shouldn't do Ben?' I thought to myself. The next best thing which came to my mind was 'Don't eat food while climbing'. Really? That's what I come up with? He laughed and waved me through to sign the safety forms. The rest is history.

Now to the actual title relation: I have been climbing for near to six months now and still haven't had a single climbing session where I walked out as exhausted as I would have when lifting weights, or running of any sort. Maybe I always go absolutely nuts when I lifted or do some sort of cardiovascular exercise, but even in the climbing gym I have had some hard sessions but they all felt super fun and relaxed somehow, making me feel as if this isn't 'exercise' in the traditional sense. In my mind, exercise was always hard, grueling, and made you work up a disgusting sweat. If it wasn't that, you weren't doing it properly. Bouldering is different. Every session I get to go to (take note of me saying 'get to go to' as opposed to 'have to go' or 'go to'), I look forward to going, as opposed to dragging myself to football training or into the gym. The best part? It's a full-body workout. You use your arms, your legs, your core, and your cardiovascular system. I can definitely say you feel your arms after, but none of the others ones to the same extent (usually). It feels somewhat effortless, and fun.

Fun fact: You can burn up to 600 calories in one hour of bouldering (this means pure climbing, breaks not included of course). While this doesn't seem like a crazy amount, I promise you time flies while at the wall. I have spent hours in the gym at a time and it felt like I was there for half an hour. Comparing this to times when I used to run or play football, half an hour felt like three days of working out. You are forced to solve problems too because depending on how you are built there are many different ways to climb a route. (A route is normally called a problem. Climbing lingo is crazy. There are so many funny words for things in this sport) Using your brain, while having fun, while being in good company, while burning a bunch of calories and building muscle? Sign me up.

Perhaps I found my exercise of choice which I am ideally suited to. Perhaps I am living my climbing life with rose-tinted glasses. Whatever it may be, I know it works for me and I wanted to share this to tell you about a sport you may not have known existed. If you think I may be an individual case who feels this way: I have talked to many people at the gym about this exactly, and they feel the same. It's a proven exercise method that doesn't feel like it's an exercise (in the sense I have described above) because it's not physically demanding in the way that other sports are. If you feel the same way I do about cardiovascular exercise methods that I do, give this a shot. I am pretty certain you will enjoy it. Let me leave you with a summary of bullet points as to why climbing is awesome, to fully convince you:

  1. Full-body workout: Rock climbing engages almost every muscle in your body, from your arms and shoulders to your core and legs. It requires strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance, making it a great full-body workout.
  2. Cardiovascular fitness: Climbing gets your heart rate up and increases your circulation, providing an excellent cardiovascular workout.
  3. Stress relief: Climbing requires focus and concentration, which can help to clear your mind of other worries and concerns. The sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching the top of a climb can also help to reduce stress levels.
  4. Improved mental and emotional health: Climbing can help to improve your self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as your problem-solving skills. It can also provide a sense of community and social connection, as climbers often form close bonds with one another.
  5. Increased mindfulness: Climbing requires a great deal of focus and attention to the present moment, which can help to promote mindfulness and mental clarity.
  6. Outdoor adventure: Climbing can take you to some of the most beautiful and remote places in the world, providing a sense of adventure and connection with nature.

Let me know if this inspired you to start, and if you experience the same sentiment toward this form of exercise.