Monday, June 30, 2008

Alpine Climbing and Fitness

I have written before in this publication about indoor rock climbing and its fitness benefits. Now I want to turn my attention to the sport of "alpine climbing" and its variations, and how this activity can become a part of a fitness lifestyle that is truly in concert with what we call the "inner athlete." Another term for alpine climbing is simply "mountain climbing". Though most people would think of mountain climbing as something that would involve a very high peak and trekking through snow to get to the top, the purpose of this article is to show the value of participating even in less extensive climbs that test fitness and require some planning, but can be done in a short period of time or even over the course of an afternoon. As a personal trainer I was always looking for things that would effectively motivate my clients to adhere to a fitness program and reach their goals. Whether the goal was weight loss, building muscles, toning up their bodies or having more energy, I knew that the "Inner Athlete" that we mention frequently on our website exists in everybody, so it was up to me to find an activity that allowed a client's version of that inner athlete to come out. Training to get their body fit enough to climb a mountain was frequently the ticket. It is a very simple idea: get your body from the bottom of the mountain to the top, and once you are up there, enjoy the view and the fruits of your labor. A lot of clients were really intrigues by the idea, so we built their cardio programs and resistance training programs around it.

As I write this article, recently I have been riveted by the current Discovery Channel series "Everest, Beyond the Limit". The series follows the journey of a group of climbers led by a professional guide as they attempt to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain. In the series, viewers are treated for really the first time with EXACTLY what it looks and sounds like way up at those rarely traveled altitudes. In addition, a TV series has never before focused on the actual life these climbers lead as they spend almost 2 months on the mountain itself, getting used to the altitude and building the specific fitness required to achieve the summit. The hardship these people endure to reach their goal is almost beyond the understanding of most people, as the prolonged exposure to the increasing altitudes of Everest causes the climbers' minds and bodies to gradually shut down and stop working properly. It is enough to make even a pretty experienced fitness professional and adventurer like myself question the value of doing something that extreme to my body. Even having done some alpine climbing myself, including summiting Oregon's Mt. Hood (11,249ft) and Washington's famous Mt. St. Helens (8,364 ft), I still found it tough to imagine wanting to put my body through something so tortuous. The altitudes on the mountains I have climbed are only around 1/3 as high as those on Everest (29,035ft)

That's not what this article is about, however. Only a few thousand people in the entire world have ever stepped onto the summit of Everest, but virtually anyone can find a "climbing" adventure that suits their fitness and personality. The experience of the thrill of climbing is something that is realistically within anyone's means when actually trained for. Most people have just never really considered it possible or know where to start. Looking beyond the extreme nature that is present on Everest, the sport of "mountain climbing" can be participated in by almost anyone with a solid basic level of fitness. There some real and absolutely extraordinary fitness benefits that extreme climbers have achieved by the time they are done on Everest, and a version of those benefits are within the reach of "normal" people. These are people who may want the adventure of climbing a mountain to motivate them, but can realistically be achieved on a much smaller scale attainable by virtually anyone.

Physiologically, climbing is one of the most effective aerobic activities that can be performed. The steady state effort required to train for and perform climbs builds tremendous fitness in the heart and circulatory system. It is also typically low impact and easy on the joints which makes it an activity that virtually anyone can perform at some level.

Psychologially, climbing has a typically very simple appeal: getting to the top of a mountain feels good and is a very easy goal to define. "I made it to the top" is a very attractive thing to feel. Everybody wants to feel a sense of accomplishemnt in their lives, and too often our fitness success or failure is defined by the weight scale. All shapes and sizes of, people can climb, and the mountain doesn't care what size you are, it only cares if you made it to the top of it or not. So, best of luck in your climbing adventures, no matter at what altitude you finish!

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