Living LifeWise: Getting Back on the Climbing Wall

Living Lifewise Sunday, March 16, 2014 Written by

Living LifeWise is a regular column provided by LifeWise Ambassadors – LifeWise employees whose healthy choices are helping them live better lives. Today’s column is provided by LifeWise Ambassador Laura McLeod.

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Rock climbing wasn’t a sport I ever expected to take on, especially in my 40s. But after friends introduced me to Stone Gardens, an indoor climbing gym with locations in Seattle and Bellevue, and I saw my partner’s enthusiasm for it, I forced myself to give it a go.


After the first few challenging attempts, I’m more than glad I did. As with many physical activities, climbing uses muscles you didn’t know you had. At first, my hands and fingers felt arthritic after an evening at the gym. My stomach muscles ached and I felt like Popeye with his giant forearms. Climbing to the top of a wall meant using every ounce of my courage, especially trusting someone to make sure I landed easy when I came down.

It didn’t take long to get the hang of it and gain strength and technique, not to mention callouses (callouses, along with short nails, are a climber’s friend). Later, I found I preferred bouldering to rope climbing – the  routes were shorter in height and duration, emphasized problem solving skills and technique, and didn’t require the same level of reliance on anyone else to support me. Bouldering also requires a smaller gear investment – just good climbing shoes, a chalk bag and chalk – unless you’re climbing outdoors, where you’ll want a good crash pad.


Many people assume you have to be really strong to be a climber, but strength comes with time and practice. Climbing is so much more: a mix of good footwork, balance, observation and strategy. Using your hips and core matters just as much as using your arms and shoulders, and it engages your mind just as much as your body. Routes are real-time puzzles and focus is essential. At least early on, you’ll see men and women tackle routes differently; men often muscle their way up a route, while women use their bodies more strategically. Skilled climbers can be exceptionally graceful and a delight to watch.

Climbing may be a sport, but I find it’s more like play than exercise, despite the potential risks. By its nature, it’s social. Climbing requires a partner because of the danger, whether at a gym or on real rocks, and the camaraderie of sharing “route beta,” or the route’s roadmap and strategy, can quickly enhance capability and adds to the fun. Yet the fitness benefits are huge. It was never a weight-loss activity for me – instead, I gained strength and flexibility. In fact, my arms and core were never stronger. My balance also greatly improved.


Yes, I’m speaking in past tense. Unfortunately, I was sidelined with plantar fasciitis (the most common type of heel pain), and was forced to take a long break. Wearing tight climbing shoes (about a half size smaller than your normal shoe size, or even more if you’re hardcore) and dropping down even a short distance caused a lot of pain or discomfort. It’s taken more than a year, some rehab and a lot of fits and starts, but I’m at last back at the climbing gym. The biggest change after taking a break is my loss of core strength (and callouses), but I was relieved to find that the technique and muscle memory are still there.

I’m taking it slow and doing easy routes, but I love how much fun it is, the focus on problem solving and challenging my body, and remembering that improvement happens. Strength and skill will come back – it just takes time.

I’m not sure I’ll be on real rocks anytime soon, but for now, it’s just nice to be back at the gym, testing my skill, building strength and having fun.

Top photo courtesy of Sara Longley.


Laura_McLeodLaura McLeod is an internal communications manager at LifeWise, and is convinced that lifestyle trumps genetics. Because her genetics include many lifestyle-based illnesses, she strives to eat well, exercise and get regular check-ups. While she’s officially reached ‘mid-life,’ she believes you’re only as old as you feel.  Laura lives in Ballard with her long-time partner and her energetic, playful cat. Learn more about Laura in our Living LifeWise video series