Chances are you know someone who has an eating disorder. In the U.S. alone, at least 30 million people of all demographics suffer, and the statistics regarding mortality are haunting. Out of all psychiatric illnesses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate, and the crude mortality rates are 4% for anorexia, 3.9% for bulimia, and 5% for other specified feeding and eating disorders. (Crow, SJ, Peterson, CB. et al., 2009). Rock climbing often (but not always) emphasizes weight management, and consequently, climbers take extreme measures in order to achieve success. Although this tactic works for some, losing weight for performance goals often leads to an unhealthy obsession. In conjunction with the existing societal pressures and emphasis on thinness, one could only imagine how this would affect the next generation of crushers.
Much like dancers, gymnasts, and distance runners, eating disorders span the climbing community due to the sport’s accentuation of body fat percentage and strength-to-weight ratio. Instead of training to be stronger, some climbers focus on their weight as a segway to success. Before I moved to Chicago, I found myself on the verge of starving to get lean in hopes of sending hard. Did I lose weight? Yes. But I lost much more than that.
I lost my happiness, my friends, my ambition, my bone density, my period, my ability to stay warm… etc. Eating less than one-thousand calories per day, my uncomfortably pronounced cheekbones and ribs begged for nourishment. As sick as this sounds, I loved my eating disorder at one point during the depths of my illness, but deep down I yearned for help. I ended up seeking recovery and restarting my life, but this “happy ending” isn’t a reality for many climbers that can’t find themselves out of the lose-gain cycle. On the other hand, some climbers can handle shedding weight to send and ultimately find it successful, but what image does this leave for the youth climbers that look up to those potentially taking weight loss measures?
Michaela Kiersch, a 22-year-old professional rock climber, has learned to excel not only as a climber but also as a coach and role model. She sat down with me to discuss the sacrifices she’s willing to make in order to climb well while also living a fun, fulfilling life:
“For me, climbing has always been and always will be personal. I climb for myself and for how it makes me feel. Climbing makes me feel strong, confident, and joyful. As a professional climber, I feel like I am straddling the line between expectations of other people and expectations that I have for myself. Of course, I want to live up to what other people see and want for me, but at what cost? I always expect to try my hardest, and this doesn’t always mean that I will succeed. I’m okay with that. I expect myself to graduate college. Sometimes this means skipping a session or a workout, I’m okay with that. I expect myself to enjoy my life, friends, and city. Sometimes that means having a big ole burger and a beer, I’m okay with that. I expect myself to someday have a family. Eventually, I will have to put something (or a little someone) before my climbing, and I’m okay with that. It will never be worth it to sacrifice the things that I want. Sure, I admit that I may see improvements in my climbing if I decided to lose a significant amount of weight, but at what cost? I may climb 5.15 but what if I can’t have kids? What if I get hurt? What if my metabolism slows so much that I can’t have a burger and beer more often than not? If I can’t send as hard as I want to, losing an unhealthy amount of weight is not the answer. I see two options for myself: try a little harder in training OR sit back and enjoy the ride because I love climbing regardless of the grades I feel like I should climb (or other people think I should climb).”
Is it really worth losing the extra weight? Michaela- who has sent multiple 5.14s including Golden Ticket (5.14c), Pure Imagination (5.14c) and Lucifer (5.14c) among others- thinks otherwise. I myself can look back at my past and wish I’d thought differently regarding my decisions to lean out. I live with no regrets, but it’s something I hope to inspire others to steer away from because it’s not worth it. This is the example we should be setting for youth climbers. I love climbing, but I also love living a life outside of climbing. And those two things are mutually inclusive.
So what can be done to protect the young guns? Coaches, team members, parents, listen in.
- Education: Know what the signs and symptoms of eating disorders are so you can know how and when to intervene.
- Communication: De-emphasize losing weight for success, and instead focus on other ways to enhance performance.
- Encouragement: Lead others towards help for all mental health concerns, and take mental health concerns seriously.
We can stop the growing incidence of eating disorders among youth climbers, but we first need to start with ourselves.