I’ve tried countless exercise disciplines and they all make big claims about their respective fitness benefits. Most of them acquit themselves admirably on that count, but fall short on a secondary but equally common claim: fun. By and large, unless you’re of a specific personality type, exercise is not fun. I love running, for example, and spend hours every week doing it, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s fun.
One activity that had eluded me until recently was indoor rock climbing, which I had the opportunity to try at the new Central Rock Gym in Warwick. Founded in Worcester in 2009, CRG has expanded into seven locations around Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. That’s in keeping with the growth of the sport as a whole: according to the market research firm The NPD Group, indoor rock climbing is now a $175.5 million industry – and that’s before it will be featured in the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Despite growing enthusiasm worldwide, I approached indoor rock climbing with a mild but very real fear of heights to conquer on my way up the wall. Manager and instructor Jamie Re quickly put me at ease, showcasing CRG’s expansive facility, which also includes a yoga studio and weight room, and introduced me to some of his regulars. The gym offers both top-rope climbing, in which a fellow climber keeps you safe with a rope that runs to the top of a tall wall, and bouldering, which involves shorter walls over thick pads and no ropes.
Jamie’s plan was to show me the ropes (literally) by teaching me to belay, or secure the rope that prevents another climber from falling. Using a harness and carabiner, the belayer takes up the slack as the climber works toward the top and stands ready to lock the rope should the climber fall. Once the climber is ready to descend, it’s the belayer’s job to release the slack in a controlled fashion for a slow and safe landing. It’s a fairly simple process and can be learned in about a half hour, but it is quite genuinely a lifesaver.
As I worked my way up the training wall I could feel the anxiety creeping in, but managed to continue climbing. The first real test came at the top when Jamie instructed me to let go, lean back and let myself fall. On a cognitive level, I knew that the rope was secure and I could trust Jamie to keep me safe, but it took a few seconds for my limbs to get the message.
My fear conquered, Jamie invited me to try a couple of the tallest walls, ascending roughly 30 feet – perhaps not that impressive for an experienced climber, but high enough to quicken my pulse. Each wall has several color-coded paths of hand and footholds that criss-cross it, graded according to difficulty. This was when the real challenge and appeal of climbing became apparent: it’s as much a mental activity as a physical one. Your muscles are fully engaged by pushing and pulling your body up the wall using holds no bigger than the palm of your hand or the ball of your foot. At the same time, your mind is in puzzle-solving mode, trying to game out the proper route from one hold to the next. On the easier courses the holds are numerous, closer together and easy to spot. On the harder ones, it’s not uncommon to find yourself glued in place, thinking, There’s no way I can reach that next hold without losing my footing.
The best part about that level of mental engagement is that it distracts you from all the hard work your body is doing. Up on the wall, a Zen-like calm took over, but back on the ground I could feel an excited energy coursing through every muscle in my body. It was challenging, invigorating and, dare I say, fun.
Central Rock Gym
275 West Natick Road, Warwick