Feature Article - April 2008
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Scaling New Heights

Harness the Popularity of Climbing to Take Your Facility to the Top

By Kelli Anderson

Fit for the Job

Perhaps one of the greatest areas of climbing's crossover into the mainstream can be seen in its application for fitness. Just as lifting weights was once seen as an activity relegated to a macho-few but is now a staple in the fitness regimen, so climbing's application as a fitness tool is attracting a wider audience.

As a way to train, there is an enormous cardiovascular component as well as an application for strength training and improved balance.

"We're seeing a fitness movement," Fischer said. "It's a full-body workout—it's fun, it's spiritual and it's mental. For people who don't like gyms, it's perfect."

For many people, getting a traditional workout simply isn't fun. But it can be.

"One fitness director at our branch found out people weren't interested in the treadmill or machines," said Jay Buckmaster, branch executive director of the Northwest Branch YMCA in Wichita, Kan. "It was boring. He had people try the climbing wall and integrate it into their program, and it's worked."

Schools, too, eager to find fitness equipment for their students, have discovered climbing's great for building muscle, balance and endurance. Youth fitness facilities also have discovered *the benefits to be gained from bouldering—a form of climbing without equipment—and not only tout the effects of using long, low, fixed bouldering walls, but also like using training-dedicated climbing equipment with moving panels.

In Wilmington, Del., Brandywine High School's proposal for a specialized climbing wall grant was so compelling that they received the entire $10,000 needed at a time when physical education grants were hard to come by. With a proposed goal to virtually climb Mount Everest, the equipment could measure each student's accumulated distance and calories burned in their quest to reach "the summit."

Ten years later, their moving-paneled climbing wall has proven its value to their program over and over.

"We wanted to stay as cutting-edge as possible," said Sandy Kupchick, physical education instructor at the school. "We want to show them that so many things can provide lifetime fitness. The students enjoy it, have fun and continue to come back to it and use it. It's been well worth the money."

Even athletic teams are getting in on the workout benefits of climbing and it's being used as a regular fitness tool. Ironically, however, it is climbing's nontraditional image and ability to reach out to the non-athlete that makes it especially useful.

In a world where basketball clearly isn't for everyone, climbing is a perfect alternate outlet to team sports, helping build confidence, character and friendships while also building muscle.

"We've had moms come to us saying they can't believe how much more confident their son or daughter is," Buckmaster said. "They're walking taller. They see success there."

Josh Keith, a science department chair at Hyde School in Bath, Maine, has seen similar results.

"In my experience, students are drawn to the challenge and perceived risk of climbing. It is a very safe and controlled environment for students to challenge their mental and physical boundaries," Keith said. "It stresses the concepts of repetition and encourages students to risk failure. Many times learning a route may involve five to 15 failures, but instead of viewing failure as a negative, failure becomes part of the culture. The attempt is valued over the success."

Climbing wall programs and products even specialize for academic application, with wall holds designed to mark out levels of difficulty as they correspond to spelling out sentences or solving mathematical equations.