Between a Walk and a Hard Pace

I’m a big fan of Scandinavian crime fiction. I’d love to visit Norway or Sweden some day, although I’m a bit concerned about the apparent proliferation of serial killers over there. Aside from dysfunctional detective chief inspectors, though, my favorite export from that part of the world would have to be Nordic walking, also known as pole walking or urban poling.

I first learned about walking poles in a magazine for people living with multiple sclerosis. The article described how folks with uneven gaits, stability problems, and balance issues could continue to enjoy walking for recreation and exercise through the use of walking poles. Many of us with MS or Parkinson’s fear tripping and falling; for instance, my left foot doesn’t always lift quite as high as it needs to, and I’ve endured a couple of scary and embarrassing face plants. So far I haven’t seriously injured myself, although one of those falls tore a hole in the knee of my favorite skinny jeans as well as bloodied the knee of my actual skinny leg. But that fear means I tend to walk slowly and keep my eyes focused on the ground, rather than enjoying the sights and sounds around me. What’s worse, I start to lurch after about a half mile as my muscles weaken, and don’t relish my neighbors thinking that I’ve been at the sauce quite that early in the day. A cane is fine for trips to the mall or shopping, but it doesn’t allow me to walk at a fitness pace, get my heart rate up, or work my core (more on that below).

Although the article discussed the specific technique of “Nordic walking”, the poles I ended up buying after some web research were of a type sold under the brand name of “Exerstrider”. The Exerstrider poles have a special handgrip design and arm-extension technique that promised to work my arm and core torso muscles more intensively during the walk. That sounded great to me, as I’m in a constant battle against the dreaded muffin top (and mostly losing). The upper-body motion is similar to that used in cross-country skiing. (Note to the wit in my neighborhood who invariably shouts “Hey, where’s the snow?” when I chug past your house: That was amusing the first five times you tossed it my way, buddy. Get some new material.)

The poles cost about $100 for the pair, which is pretty cheap for exercise equipment. (Unlike a treadmill or exercise bike, though, the poles can’t do double-duty as a convenient place to drape your dirty clothes. Alas.) I have an exercise room at home, so I normally just wear ratty yoga pants and holey t-shirts when I work out, but going out in public with the poles was an opportunity to invest in some cooler duds like Spandex running pants, colorful Dri-Fit shirts, and neon-laced running shoes. Along the way I’ve added a ball cap with a brim to keep the sun out of my eyes and a waist pack for my house key, energy gels, ID, and phone. My phone, by the way, is not just for calling home for a ride if I decide I can’t make that second mile (which, for the record, has never happened). I use an app called MapMyWalk, which uses the GPS in my phone to track and record my route, miles walked, steps taken, and calories burned; it also plays music from my iTunes. (Mostly the Boss and the Talking Heads, in case you were curious.)

Walking poles not only improve my stability by providing essentially two more “legs”, but also engage my upper body and arms to help move me along, dramatically improving how far I can walk. I routinely walk over two miles around my neighborhood in about 40 minutes. No one who sees me hustling along with my poles can tell I’ve got a neuromuscular disorder and would be in a gelatinous heap on the ground without them. I look like anyone else out there walking, running, or biking to stay in shape. Pole walking isn’t for everyone, but for many of us, it’s a terrific way to get outside and keep moving.

You can find out more about Nordic walking on the web. Some sites I’ve found helpful:

I’m not endorsing any particular kind of pole or program, but if you’d like to learn more about my experiences with pole walking for fitness, feel free to send me email at I’d love to hear from you! In the meantime, I’ll be getting back to my Scandinavian police procedurals. Skoal!

Important: As with any new exercise program, if you decide to give Nordic pole walking a try, check with your doctor first.

— Pam Saussy, Board Member

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