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Stretch yourself

Exercise doesn’t have to be brutal. There are gentler ways to keep fit – and find some peace.

Looking for gentle fixes to start the new year on the right foot? Nothing relaxes and recharges quite like a sporty session or athletic outing. Staying active boosts happiness and health, and it even helps you sleep better – so we’re aiming to keep moving this year. That doesn’t mean signing up for the next Ironman triathlon – unless that’s your thing. It means going at your own pace and doing something that soothes the soul as well, whether it’s a climb or a swim.

Regular exercise has the power to reduce stress and improve concentration. So let us take you on a journey around the world – from Austria to Australia – to show you what sports are worth giving a go this year. Go bouldering in Innsbruck, make a splash in Tel Aviv, hike through Vancouver’s expansive wilderness and ride a wave in Margaret River. Lace up your trainers and pack a towel – there’s plenty to explore.

With some 60 per cent of its territory covered by mountains it’s little wonder that Austria has consistently produced ski champions and Winter Olympic gold medallists. But there’s another sport at which Austrians excel and it’s making its debut in the Summer Olympics this year: rock climbing.

“It’s such a great alternative to going to the gym,” says Reinhold Scherer, c0-manager of Kletterzentrum-Innsbruck (KI), one of the biggest climbing centres in the country with more than 1,000 daily visitors. “It helps you stay fit and healthy, and it also makes you part of a fast-growing culture.”

Scherer is something of a hero in the Tyrolean capital. With more than 40 years’ experience, the prize-winning trainer has worked tirelessly to promote the sport and encourage more investment in training facilities. Prior to opening KI in 2017, he helped create climbing paths in the nearby Alps, which are essential for building a sustainable climbing culture.

“If you don’t have climbing routes, you don’t have climbers,” says Scherer. “If you don’t have climbers, you don’t need a climbing centre.” Barbara Ospelt and Samuel Hoop travelled all the way from Liechtenstein to visit the Innsbruck facility, which is widely considered to be the best in the Alpine region. “It’s a great sport,” says Ospelt, looking up at fellow climbers scaling KI’s indoor walls. “It pushes you to the limit and provides that extra kick of adrenaline.”

With all of Scherer’s expertise going into creating KI, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the centre is also used by professional climbers: Austria’s national team are training here ahead of the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo. “To make it on the team you have to be a good worker and have a little talent,” says Pawel Draga, one of the team’s coaches. “All in all you will need to put in at least 10 years before you can call yourself a pro.”

But for those just wishing to improve their fitness, the learning curve needn’t be so steep, says Scherer. “If you are a reasonably sporty person it will take you two to three months to acquire basic skills – and feel good about yourself.”

Take the plunge

Staying active is easy in Tel Aviv: head to an outdoor seafront pool for a daily dip.

At 06.00 every morning Gordon Pool on Tel Aviv’s seafront opens to loyal bathers who start their day with a dip in its salty waters. “About 100 people arrive at that time,” says manager Asaf Yitzhaki, who’s held his post here for the past four years. “There are people who swim here regularly and, for them, it’s like this is the only pool in the world. They won’t accept going to any other.” The swimming complex originally opened in 1956, just a few years after the state of Israel was established. The aim was to create a bathing spot without the untreated waste that flowed into the sea at the time.

Every evening at 21.00 pool staff empty the three basins (including the 50-metre lap pool) into the Mediterranean Sea. A thorough cleaning ensues and then custom-built pumps extract ground-water from two wells to refill the pools for the next day. Thanks to this system the water remains clean, mineral-rich and at a constant year-round temperature of 24c. Testing it out today the water feels a bit nippy at first but, under the warm sun, swimming here is soon rather refreshing.

Sport is a serious part of life in Tel Aviv: it’s impossible to walk along the seafront promenade, known as the tayelet, without hearing the plink-plonk sound of beachgoers playing matkot, a ubiquitous bat-and-ball game, or bumping into a runner or two. Bikes and scooters zip up and down designated paths. Gordon Pool is a key part of this bustling mix of outdoor activity.

Family lawyer Yael Shmueli has been swimming here for eight years. These days she fits sessions in around her two children: today that means a Saturday dip. She points to the difficult-to-measure “happiness” value of a proper swimming pool open to all (about 4,000 people have memberships but the complex is open to casual swimmers and walk-in customers too). “Everyone in Tel Aviv wants to look and feel good,” says Shmueli. “Swimming at Gordon Pool is a very special feeling; if I’m in a bad mood and I go swimming, I come out feeling like a totally different person.”

Many swimmers believe that Gordon Pool is an integral part of Tel Aviv, including 60-year-old Ehud Danziger, a retired bank manager who exercises here at least twice a week. “Gordon Pool is a kind of community club,” he says. “It’s very important that it remains that way because it’s unique in Israel.”

The pool’s mineral-rich saltwater is a tonic for swimmers of all ages. In the summer, young sunseekers and tourists mingle on the smart wooden decking. But the pool also has more than 200 regulars over the age of 85, according to Yitzhaki. “I think the oldest woman who swims is 103,” he says. “She’s been coming to Gordon Pool for 50 years.”

If their enthusiastic testimonies are anything to go by, swimmers navigating Gordon Pool’s orderly lanes have found a gentle routine that cures most ills. We’ll see you at the ticket kiosk.

In the ascendance

A short step from buzzing city life is the peaceful embrace of wilderness. Time to hit the trail.

Hiking poles in hand, Eric Tan heads up a gravel trail enveloped by tall cedar and spruce trees. Crisp air and the white noise of North Vancouver’s Lynn Creek create the feeling of endless wilderness. But this is just minutes from the city.

Known as Canada’s “Gateway to the Pacific”, Vancouver is a young city where people reinvent themselves – and hiking has catalysed Tan’s personal transformation. One year ago, the previously sedentary 48-year-old began walking up to 15km a day. “My car collected dust from January to June,” says Tan. Here in the misty mountains his stint as an office-bound stockbroker fuelled by fast food feels like a distant memory.

From Bowen Island’s Mount Gardner to Squamish’s Stawamus Chief, Tan now regularly ascends the region’s peaks, connecting with other British Columbia hiking enthusiasts along the way. He keeps hitting new heights, even embarking on Grouse Mountain’s notoriously steep “Grouse Grind” six times in one day.

Today’s two-hour hike on the 5.2km Lynn Loop, featuring well-maintained wooden stairs and footbridges, is relaxing and recharging. “You’re on your own out here,” says Tan, who grew up in Taiwan but has lived in Vancouver for 30 years. “You’re in tune with nature. No phones ringing. No wi-fi.”

During the 2010 Winter Olympics the North Shore Mountains hosted freestyle skiing; hiking on the countless trails here can be just as thrilling. Sightings can include striking suspension bridges, world-class mountain bikers and even curious black bears.

Among roots and ferns in the coastal rainforest and moss-covered boulders in iridescent creek waters, Tan feels at home. Vancouver’s proximity to wilderness trails is special but hiking is open to everyone, no matter where you live.

Barrelling ahead

Ditch the weights and pull on a wetsuit – a day of surfing will put you on the crest of a wave.

Picture the typical Aussie beach: cut-glass water, linen-white sand and a hot sun beating down from a cloudless sky. So it is at Conto Springs in Western Australia, a sandy cutlass of coast near Margaret River. It’s the perfect day for monocle to join surfer Josh Castleden in the sea. “If you’re talking about the physical, mental and emotional benefits of surfing, today was the perfect example,” says Castleden. “The waves weren’t great so it was far from technical surfing but I was just out there by myself, surrounded by dolphins, on a wave. It was pretty magical.”

Castleden began surfing in the area as a teenager, in the days when reaching the shore often meant packing a lunch and clambering over limestone rocks for an hour, board strapped to your back. “Back then anything south of Margaret River town was like the end of the Earth,” he says. Today the region that lies a three-hour drive south of Perth is firmly on the map as a place of pilgrimage for anyone who worships at the altar of the surfboard. Located on a 130km stretch of land that juts out like a chin into the Indian Ocean, waves roll in from South Africa and pound the coast here with bone-crushing force. Aside from its many vineyards producing top-notch wines, Margaret River is famous for being one of the world’s premier destinations for consistently big waves.

Though it’s developing quickly, at heart Margaret River is still a surf town with saltwater pumping through its veins and sand down its supermarket aisles. The difference today is that surfing is no longer a pastime reserved for teenagers and twenty-somethings; you’re just as likely to find mothers and their children out on the waves, or greying gents pushing 70 years old.

The sport’s inclusion for the first time in the Summer Olympics, taking place this year in Tokyo, has sealed its place in the mainstream. “Now you’ve got to accept that when you go for a surf the car park is going to be full of everything from VW Kombi vans to Range Rovers with tinted windows,” says Castleden. “And every single person out there is going surfing for their own different, valid reasons.”

For many who choose to pull on a wetsuit and strap on a leg rope, it’s the physicality of the sport that appeals; simply paddling out to where the waves are breaking can be a full-body workout. For Castleden, surfing provides a welcome counterbalance to the focus and stress involved in his work as a pilot. “It’s a mind-clearing exercise: there’s nothing competing for your attention,” he says. “You’re just in the water, looking to the horizon for the swell. When the wave arrives, all you’ve got to think about is how to ride it. All the head noise gets shut off.” Castleden even admits to enjoying having a bit of sand in his socks when he sets off on a flight. “It sounds weird,” he says, with a laugh. “But I like having that connection.”


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