Walking’s new stride

Nordic style, using poles, hikes health benefits

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter



Tips for nordic walking, or walking with poles:

• Nordic poles are available at such outdoor stores as REI, but can often be found at such discount retailers as Target, as well.

• Let your arms and legs follow their natural rhythm, with opposite arm and legs moving together, said Wendy Bumgardner, a Vancouver resident who writes about walking on About.com. You can start by dragging the poles behind you, she said. When you start moving the poles, they should remain diagonal. Do not plant them farther forward than the opposite foot.

• Do not lean forward, keep your spine upright and your feet underneath you, said Gregory Florez, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. Don’t take unusually short or long steps. As you progress, you’ll be able to take longer strides and make longer arm movements, which will increase the intensity of your workout, he said.

• “You don’t want the swing to come from your arms, but from your shoulders, back muscles and core muscles,” Florez added.

• If you’re unsure if nordic walking is for you, rent poles before buying them, said Florez.

• Bumgardner offers a detailed breakdown of proper form at http://walking.about.com/cs/poles/a/nordicwalking_2.htm.

Warren Nelson was hiking when he spotted a couple using poles.

“It looked like their posture was better,” Nelson said. It occurred to him that he could use similar poles for walks in his neighborhood.

Nelson had inadvertently stumbled onto an emerging trend — nordic walking. It mimics the motion of cross-country skiing, but without the skis or the snow.

“It comes pretty darn close to the caloric expenditure of jogging, especially if you include some hills,” said Gregory Florez, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. “You’re engaging all major muscle groups in the upper and lower body.”

Walking is itself good exercise, Florez said, and it eliminates the two biggest barriers to working out — time and access. You can do it anywhere and you don’t have to buy equipment.

But if you’re willing to do so, poles can take walking to another level.

“The poles give you resistance and help tone the arms while also exercising all major muscle groups in your upper body,” Florez said. “The learning curve is almost nonexistent. You’re essentially just walking.”

Nordic walking was one of the top 10 walking trends of the decade, according to Wendy Bumgardner, a Vancouver resident who writes about walking on About.com. But she added a caveat: Nordic walking is big in Europe, but hasn’t really taken off locally.

Even the U.S. invention, Exerstriding, which uses slightly different poles and techniques, hasn’t gained much popularity here. Bumgardner said she has spotted only a few people using poles around Clark County.

Bumgardner said she has several sets of poles, but uses them only occasionally.

“When I walk with other people, I find that poles get in the way,” she said. “Probably once every three or four months, I say, ‘I should use the poles.’ They’re very good for you in a lot of ways.”

Florez expects interest in nordic walking will grow as baby boomers, accustomed to high-impact exercise, look for alternatives when they develop joint problems.

“We have a generation of baby boomers who are getting knee replacements and hip replacements and just can’t run anymore,” he said. “This is a great substitute for that.”

As Nelson observed, improved posture is one of the many benefits of nordic walking. Poles open up the back and shoulders, an antidote to the hunched posture of working at a desk and computer, Bumgardner said.

Nelson, 58, suffered back pain when walking before he started using poles. When he started nordic walking, his pain disappeared. He also lost 40 pounds.

Nordic walking can burn 15 percent to 25 percent more calories than pole-less walking, Bumgardner said. She traveled to Finland in 2000 on a press tour, and visited research facilities that compared the exertion of walking with and without poles.

Even though the calorie burn for the same distance is greater, you don’t feel like you’re working harder, Bumgardner said. “It’s a way of sneaking in extra exertion.”

Warren now averages 30 miles a week, and has participated in the Portland Marathon as a nordic walker. He plans to walk with poles in a few more around the Northwest, even if they don’t have a nordic walking category like the Portland one.

“I’ve been walking casually for two or three years,” Warren said. “But when I found the nordic poles, I really got excited about it.”