My sports climbing and fitness journey

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I started bouldering (indoor climbing without harness) 4 months ago. I’ve since been fascinated by the sport and have been having a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I injured my right rotator cuff (a muscle/tendon group in the shoulder) and had to take a break for a few weeks. After some physiotherapy work including strengthening exercises, I started easing back in to climbing today. I was so excited that I wanted to share a little about my experience.

This is not quite my usual beat (science/ethics), but it’s something I’ve become passionate about, so I think it warrants a post.

One of the things that I think appeals to me most about bouldering is its similarity to the types of videogames I enjoy. In particular, it reminds me of a boss fight from MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft (for anyone familiar with it). It’s about going up against a specific climbing route (called a ‘problem’) and trying to complete it. There are some parts of the route which are harder than others, and you slowly improve the more times you attempt the problem. You get closer to the top, with the earlier parts eventually becoming easier to the point of triviality once you work out how to do them. Finally, you reach the top (called ‘sending the problem’!).

This feeling of slowly improving at a specific problem and completing it is incredibly satisfying for me, whether in a videogame or otherwise. There is something nice about a very clear set of goals with an easy way to tell whether you’re improving (see Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken for her take on how we can take these aspects from games and put them in real world situations like jobs, which is called ‘gamification’).

In addition to improving at bouldering in the technical sense, you also improve over time in terms of fitness and strength. To go back to the MMORPG example, improving these feels like acquiring better items and getting a higher level, while improving at the technical aspects feels like just getting more competent at the specific actions to take in the game.

Compare these two reactions from a boulderer sending a big problem after many attempts and a top World of Warcraft guild Complexity Limit being the first in the world to complete a new boss after many attempts (skip ahead to 12:10 and 13:00 respectively).

Speaking of the ‘better items and levels’ aspect of bouldering, I realised after I started climbing that I was very unfit. I went to the gym 4 times a week for around 6 months around 2018-2019, and stopped going almost entirely due to a lack of time and energy while I was running in the state and federal elections. When I stopped, I weighed around 76 kg. After almost two years of barely doing any strength training at all, I weighed 82 kg in October 2020.

I was pretty shocked. I was quite certain that most or all of the 6 kg I’d gained in that time was fat, not muscle. I also realised that I had come to not be very proud of my body. I wanted to change that. There was also the part of me that thought about how I was carrying an extra 6 kg I didn’t need to up the wall. Over the past 4 months, I have been exercising more including cardio and strength training, and eating less and more consciously. I’m back to 76 kg (I’m fairly confident that most of the 6 kg lost is fat, not muscle), and I couldn’t be happier. People who know me might be surprised I wanted to lose weight, as I’ve always been fairly slim. But my goal has simply been to cut away some excess fat and replace it with muscle.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed my mood has drastically improved recently. Whether that’s due to eating healthily, exercising more, a recent move to a new apartment or some other factor, I’m not sure. But whatever it was, I want to keep it up.

I want to talk a little about what I did to lose 6 kg, and some of the nutrition science I’ve learned recently. A lot of what I’ve learned is from a fitness Youtuber by the name of Jeremy Ethier, who I highly recommend. Their videos are science-based and well-researched, which is not something I can say for all fitness/health commentators today.

First and foremost, to lose fat you need a calorie (or joule for us metric folk) deficit. When you eat food, you are consuming calories, and when you do any activity (or even when you’re not), you’re burning calories. If you’re burning more energy than you’re consuming, you’ll ‘burn’ fat.

An interesting anecdote about losing fat – most people have no idea how the body actually disposes of fat, including many medical doctors. I certainly didn’t until recently. The chemical composition of human body fat is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms (e.g. oleate – C18H34O2). When you ‘burn fat’, your body is mostly converting it in to water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), most of which you end up breathing out. Some small amount of excess water may also leave the body through various bodily fluids, but most weight will leave the body during weight loss through the lungs. I confess I simplify the biology a little here.

Armed with the knowledge of how the body actually loses fat, we can better think about how to best achieve that. The basic premise is simple, but there is a lot of complexity, so I won’t even try to cover it. I can’t recommend the below video by Jeremy Ethier enough.

For me, it mostly came down to just jogging more and changing how I eat. I’ve almost entirely cut down on dessert and highly processed foods, e.g. faux meat. I want to stress that I don’t think there is anything especially bad about eating processed food such as faux meats. The problem is primarily that they usually have fewer nutrients and more calories. If you exercise more to compensate that, no big deal. But if you’re trying to lose fat, it can be best to avoid that.

To illustrate just how big a difference a small amount of certain foods can make to your fat weight, consider this. A serving of olive oil (~15 ml) has 508 kilojoules. To burn that energy by running at 10 km per hour would take around 8 minutes for someone my weight, or around 14 minutes at 8 km per hour. For someone trying to lose weight, it’s hard to see a teaspoon of olive oil as anything other than a setback.

My line of thinking recently has been to try and cut out inefficient calories. In other words, foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients. I’ve stopped cooking with oil (I use a splash of vegetable stock to fry with now), avoid desserts and processed food, and eat mostly whole foods. So far it seems to be going well. I’m probably getting more nutrients now than I ever have in my life.

Finally, a comment on various diets like intermittent fasting (e.g. only eating in a window of time such as 12 pm to 8 pm). There doesn’t seem to be any special science behind these. The most useful part of intermittent fasting seems to be that only eating in a certain window makes it easier to stick to a calorie deficit. It may also help you feel more full, again assisting with the calorie deficit. But based on my reading, there is no benefit of intermittent fasting over just a regular eating schedule if you are consuming the same number of calories and exercising the same amount. Having said that, some people may find it useful to help restrict calories and stay on a calorie deficit.

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