How, and where, do you keep fit during your time in Iceland? Where are the gyms and swimming pools in Reykjavík, or where’s best for a simple jog? What are the most popular sports in Iceland? Read on to find out all you need to know about fitness in Iceland.
Iceland’s fresh clean air, wide open spaces and healthy cuisine make it the perfect destination for fitness buffs, with exercise, health consciousness and general wellbeing taking a central role in the daily lives of locals. Visitors to Iceland are quick to pick up on this cultural trait, a trait that many consider a little quirky given the country’s dark, stretched out winters.
After all, who wants to go running at the best of the times, least of all in weather that, at best, could be described as tempestuous. And yet, many Icelanders are able to resist the cozy confines of their cotton duvet, waking up early to meet the day head-on with a burst of physical exertion.
The means towards achieving a reputable level of fitness takes on any number of masks here, as it does across the planet; gymnastics, aerobics, bodybuilding, aqua-aerobics, pilates, yoga, circuit training, isometrics, jogging, competitive sports, dancercise, callisthenics... all manner of movement can be indulged in here, as long it busts a sweat.
No, these people work it, hammering it out each week to maximise the potential of their body and mind. Going to the gym here, at least in Reykjavík, appears to be as much a part of the culture as bathing in geothermally heated swimming pools, some of which are in fact conjoined to the gymnasium itself.
Some know of the Icelandic giants, strongmen who have gone to find international fame in bodybuilding championships and entertainment. Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, the world’s strongest man, is the best example of this, having played Sir Gregor Clegane (aka; “The Mountain”) in HBO’s compelling fantasy show, Game of Thrones.
Of course, despite their early exit from the 2018 World Cup, the Men’s Icelandic National Football team have proven the Icelandic gusto for fitness since their incredible victory over England at the Euros two years prior. But what are some other examples of health and fitness in Iceland?
Icelanders are a sporty bunch, no doubt about it. Such schemes as the indoor arenas, called “Soccer Houses”, have instilled a competitive edge, and a respect for vigour and robustness, amongst the country's youth. But football is just one of the many sports that has achieved the heights of popularity and burgeoning talent in Iceland.
So what sports rule the roost here? Well, handball is Iceland’s most successful recreational pastime, despite the fact that the national sport is traditional body wrestling, Glíma.
For those unaware, Glíma is a Scandinavian martial arts developed by the Vikings; the word means 'glimpse' or 'flash', describing the technique competitors use in order to topple one another. Chances are, however, you won't be seeing much Glíma here... that is, unless you go looking for it specifically.
So, back to the sport at hand... handball. The country runs the third-oldest indoor handball championship in the world, Úrvalsdeild karla, with Valur acting as the record holding league champions. To justify its position as Iceland's unofficial national sport, when the Icelandic National Handball team made it to the finals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, approximately 80% of the nation tuned in watch the game. Now that's dedication for a sport widely overlooked by the rest of the world.
With Iceland’s victory over England at the Euros 2016 and their subsequent qualification in the 2018 World Cup, football has gone from strength to strength at home. Through a number of youth schemes and the construction of indoor pitches, Icelanders have improved their skills on the ball in record time, achieving heights that no one abroad expected. Icelanders' biggest sporting stars are from the world of football.
Golf is also incredibly popular in Iceland, despite the fact that much of the year is pitch black, the land is covered in snow and gale-force winds often make stepping outside unfeasible. Tricky weather makes ball control a ball-ache, and let’s face it, golf balls are hard to find in the snow.
To make matters worse, the majority of Iceland’s year endures an ever present winter tone, containing the sunlight to little more than three hours per day. It's enough to make one ask; is golfing in Iceland even possible?
In short, yes, though visitors have to be picky with their season of choice. After all, there’s no sense securing a golf trip in the black heart of winter now, is there?
Iceland’s summer months—that is May, June and July—are your best bet for a successful golf swing in Iceland, with the glorious Midnight Sun keeping the days long and the possibilities endless. Iceland's most famous golfer is Ólafía Þórunn Kristinsdóttir who has played full time for the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) since 2017. Because of her accomplishments, 2017 saw her named Icelandic Sportsperson of the Year.
Other popular sports in Iceland include the likes of basketball, tennis, volleyball and, naturally, horseback riding. One recreational activity in particular which has seen Icelanders reach the heights of success is strength sports, especially powerlifting, solidifying the countrymen’s reputation as broad, powerful vikings (to outsiders, at least.) To stress that point, Benedikt Magnússon is the world record holder in deadlift, rising 445 kg at the tender age of 20.
Sometimes, holidaymakers can't quite hack the idea of a little respite, meaning exercise in one form or another is a necessity. After all, one important facet of fitness is discipline, the need to keep at it lest the health benefits begin to slip.
Thankfully for the health conscious, Iceland boasts some incredible gymnasiums, almost all of which offer one day passes. Let's delve into some of the most notable examples in Iceland.
With little doubt, World Class Laugar delivers up to its name, offering an extensive gymnasium, swimming complex and numerous daily classes. Attached to the city’s stadium, Laugardalsvöllur, this area is the heart of sporting in Iceland.
Extended gym membership is, naturally, possible, but for those with only a short time in the country, World Class also offer one-time entrances. Stepping into this highly modern facility, visitors will be grateful to discover an enormous range of options for working those muscles.
There are rows upon rows of treadmills and rowing machines, a designated weights area, spots for stretching and warming up, rooms for specialist classes and, naturally, the swimming complex.
Photo by Delaney Van
Otherwise known as the “nest of giants”, Jakaból is known to be the home of powerlifters, bodybuilders and strongmen.
Don’t fear if you’re not physically ginormous, however, as Jakaból welcomes all levels of fitness through their doors... that's despite the sign on the wall—Enga Aumingja—which translates to "No Pussies". Don't worry, the clientele is a friendly bunch, despite their gargantuanism.
Much of the equipment was built by Magnús Ver Magnússon, the gym’s owner and 4 times world’s strongest man. Originally founded by his longtime rival and friend, Jón Páll Sigmarsson, the gym was shut down following his premature death, before being reopened by Magnús. Hafþór Júlíus is one of the gym's most famous ex-patrons.
Located at Faxafen 12, CrossFit Reykjavik was originally founded by husband and wife team, Hrönn Svansdóttir and Ívar Ísak Guðjónsson, in 2009, in their garage. With an ever increasing number of international CrossFitters passing through their doors, a larger location was soon needed.
Joining with renowned Icelandic health and fitness guru, Evert Víglundsson, Crossfit Reykjavik has since gone from strength to strength, attracting all number of fitness enthusiasts to its professional courses and workout routines. In 2012, Annie Mist, two-time fittest woman on Earth, joined CrossFit, further adding to its credentials.
Half physical fitness philosophy, half competitive sport, CrossFit incorporates weight training, powerlifting, gymnastics and interval training, among other techniques.
Proven to be an incredibly efficient means of skimming fat and increasing muscle tone, CrossFit has become a dominant force in the exercise industry. Thankfully, Iceland is in on the action, with CrossFit the fastest growing sport in the country. Four out of the last seven international CrossFit games have been won by Icelandic women.
Because Iceland is a largely pristine and untouched, long-distance cyclers or runners have a free run over where they choose to exercise.
Öskjuhlíð woodland area is framed on one side by the city’s southwest boundary, and on the other, the glistening Atlantic Ocean. Öskjuhlíð is the perfect location for city residents looking for a little slice of nature, all within an easy walking distance from downtown.
This picturesque setting makes for a fantastic spot to stroll, cycle or jog, allowing you to gain a deeper connection with nature while exercising.
Surrounding the southern downtown pond, Lake Tjörnin, this park is a popular recreation in the heart of the capital. On any given day, visitors will spot numerous individuals exercising amid the garden sculptures, trees and birdlife.
The park’s name translates to "Music Pavillion Park", titled after the 1923 pavilion, Hljómskálinn, which was the first venue constructed in Iceland dedicated to outdoor performance. Iceland's first music school operated from this pavilion until 1924, then in 1930, the site was used as the founding location for the Reykjavík Music College.
In the heart of Reykjavik City, one can find the charmed Elliðaárdalur Valley. A mere bus ride from downtown, this area of luscious green vegetation and trickling salmon rivers is a must see for all those looking to exercise somewhere scenic.
With its waterfalls, picnic tables and bouncing wild rabbits, Elliðaárdalur feels like an entirely new world, breathing new life into those tiring of urban life. Boasting numerous hiking and cycling trails, this area is a true wonderland for fanciers of fitness.
Swimming is one of the most popular activities in Iceland, and one that just happens to be incredibly beneficial to your health. A visit to the swimming pool is often a daily stop for Icelanders looking to de-stress after a long working day; the clean and geothermally heated water is the perfect relaxant, the optimum antidote.
Swimming is known to be particularly good for stamina and all round muscle-tone, as well as how it allows one to truly take a break from the noisy outside world, instead appreciating the silent focus that tearing through the water brings.
Icelanders, by enlarge, tend to be quite sensitive, spiritual people, with an eye ever on what lessons can be learnt from ethereally-directed practices heralding from elsewhere. It is, for example, not uncommon to find transcendental meditation courses and spiritual retreats appearing on one’s facebook feed.
There are a variety of options for yoga enthusiasts in Iceland. One can attend classes in both English and Icelandic, at varying levels of experience difficulty. These classes also take on different styles and approaches, such as Hot Yoga (yoga in a deliberately boiling room—sweat it out!) or Rock Yoga (yoga to distorted guitar and heavy backing drums—not quite one expects from a deeply ancient, spiritual practice).
Making the most of Iceland's pristine water, many Icelanders choose to practise yoga in one of the country's geothermally heated pools. Exercising, or simply bathing in warm water, has long been known to relax and soften the muscles; yoga, in this respect, draws equally on one of Iceland's staple cultural practises as it does the original techniques that herald from the east.
MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and Martial Arts are incredibly popular in Iceland, given the population size and the relative peacefulness of its people. Karate and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are two of the most popular martial arts styles in the country, having rapidly taken over from the far more traditional Glíma.
Mjölnir is the most well-known club in Iceland with a focus toward MMA. The gym is run by Gunnar Nelson, an MMA fighter with numerous international matches under his belt. The location is equipped with a fully licensed MMA cage, boxing ring, weights and stretching area, children’s corner and hot and cold tubs. Mjölnir boasts a dining area, shop and its own hairdressers!
Anyway, if you're a visitor looking to pick a fight with the locals, be pre-warned—these peace-loving people are more than capable of scattering your teeth across the capital's streets. Best not provoke, yeah?
Recently on Hlemmur Square, a mysterious establishment opened its door for the first time; Hydra Floatation Spa. Utilising floating tanks, otherwise known as isolation tanks or sensory deprivation chambers, Hydra Floatation Spa is the latest health trend to spark Iceland's fascination with health and mental wellbeing.
Using Epsom salts and body-temperature water, floatation tanks deprive their guests of sensory stimulation, allowing one to focus their attention on their breathing and mind.
The results are profoundly similar to that of meditation and yoga. Many users have even drawn comparisons to Kundalini Yoga, a method of yoga that often fills its practitioners with a psychedelic sense of enlightenment, a near tangible shift in consciousness that will often lead to new revelatory ways of thinking.
Floatation tanks are known to provide relief from anxiety and stress and can even provide their users with breakthroughs in their thinking. It is thought that floating for just an hour can help relieve muscle tension, stimulate creativity, lower blood pressure and even aid with insomnia.
Klifurhúsið is a small, boulder-climbing gym located in the heart of Reykjavík. With a wide number of routes and varying levels of difficulty, both amateurs and experienced climbers alike are invited to test their mettle at this entertaining venue.
Routes change every couple of weeks, adding variability to those staying in the country for an extended period of time. The walls are not overly high, meaning there is no need for a contact line, and large soft mattresses stretch underneath each route for those who fall.
All one needs to begin bouldering at the gym is bring a pair of gym shoes and clothes, though these can also be rented out for 500 ISK.
Which gymnasiums and recreational areas did you visit while in Iceland, and which would you recommend? Make sure to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook comments box below.