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One exercise I’ve always enjoyed is walking, the simple process of repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other. After you learn how to walk as a toddler, it’s pretty straightforward. You just get up and do it. Of course, that’s where many of us fail: actually getting up and doing it.

I admit that I don’t get out and walk often enough, and when I do, it’s more of a stroll. While any walking is better than none, if you’re striving for fitness, you can’t be content with leisurely walking. To that end, people have devised various ways to wring more calories out of the effort, even if a person looks silly doing it. Weighted vests, swinging arms, calculated foot movements, and even poles are used to enhance the benefits of walking.

Race walking has been an Olympic event for men for over a century. Women were finally allowed to walk fast in the Olympics in 1992, working their way up to a 20 km (12.4-mile) event but still not allowed to do the 50 km (31-mile) race. For some reason, only men are allowed to swivel their hips for four hours.

Race walking requires that you maintain contact with the ground at all times and the leading leg must be straight when the heel strikes the ground and remain so until it passes under the body, all while walking very quickly. This is awkward and hard to do, so fitness buffs came up with power walking, which is less intense and doesn’t have specific rules.

In the swing of things

Power walking generally involves striding briskly along while swinging your arms, swiveling your hips, and twisting your waist while staring intently down the path to avoid tripping in the midst of all that hyperactive motion. You’ve probably seen power walkers, with their looks of intense concentration as they coordinate all their body parts, silently shouting “I am exercising!” with each stride. Admit it. You’ve stared at them from the window of your car as you passed by, slurping your big soft drink.

It was just such a stare that I feared when I decided to try Nordic walking, which is a form of walking with a pole in each hand to propel you forwards. It originated in Finland when cross-country skiers wanted summer training, and gained popularity as a way of working out the upper body and burning more calories while walking.

Nordic walking involves putting pressure on the ground with the poles and pushing off, while swinging each arm forward with the opposite leg as you walk. The numerous online “how-to” videos are an indication that this is far from a normal way of walking. You should watch the videos before trying this exercise.

Walking it off

I grabbed my poles one evening after dark and headed out the door, telling my husband I was going for a walk. He wondered aloud if something was wrong, because taking walks is one way I cool off when I’m upset about something. I assured him everything was fine. I just didn’t want the neighbors to see me stumbling around the block with a pair of sticks.

And stumble I did. It was awkward trying to walk with the poles on rough sidewalks, because I kept snagging the ends of the poles on jutting pieces of concrete. I also realized the poles were several inches too long. I made adjustments under the light of a street lamp and continued, this time along the side of the street. That didn’t work well because the road slanted quite a bit. My choices were to adjust one pole to be shorter than the other and walk around the same block repeatedly, or walk dangerously in the middle of the road.

I decided to go home. Even after this brief burst of activity, my arms, shoulders, and neck were in pain. It felt odd to go walking and have my upper body hurt so much. Having arrived safely at home, I watched some Nordic walking videos because my technique was obviously not correct. The videos were helpful, and I also found some diagrams that showed me where to position my stockeinsatz.

Upper-body workout

Armed with more knowledge, I tried again, this time on a bike trail, which was a vast improvement over sidewalks or street. I shortened my poles some more (instead of a 90-degree handshake position, I had a lower “I’m not sure I want to know you” position). I walked briskly along the path, propelling myself with the poles while swinging my arms and smiling faintly at passing bicyclists. After a while I was so tired that I was dragging my poles, but it was then that I finally discovered the proper technique!

I recalled that many videos had novices do that very thing. They started out by walking and dragging the poles, gradually putting more pressure on the poles and eventually pushing off on them and settling into the proper form. Once I relaxed my grip and used the pole straps to support the poles, and quit bringing the poles to a vertical position in front of me and kept them pointing diagonally backwards, my technique improved and walking became less clumsy. By then I realized I’d walked pretty far and wasn’t in good enough shape to walk back. Luckily I had some handy sticks to lean on.

Nordic walking is an exercise that definitely works out the upper part of your body while walking. I’d advise watching a couple of instructional videos first. I would also purchase a set of good telescoping poles that have glove-like straps or at least straps that can be tightly secured, and slanted rubber tips rather than flat. It takes a bit to acquire the proper technique for Nordic walking, but it’s a good exercise to stick with.


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