Pole power

The night was clear, the air brisk, the full moon hovering, lighting my way and keeping me company. Pump, plant, push. Pump, plant, push. I was walking to a new rhythm, swinging a pair of poles like a cross-country skier on barren concrete.

As an aging baby boomer, my jogging days are clearly over, what with my creaky knees and bad back. I had to find a new way to move my body that was not only gentle on my stiff joints but also more efficient than just walking, to work my heart and, let’s face it, keep the pounds off.

Of course, walking with poles or canes or walking sticks is not a new idea. In Finland, it’s called Nordic walking, which the Finns have been doing for centuries. They cross-country ski with them and walk with them, too.

Studies show power workout
What is new are studies showing that the simple act of lifting arms, planting poles and pushing off creates a powerful cardiovascular workout, burning from 25 to 46 per cent more energy an hour than regular walking, for a maximum of 400 calories an hour, according to the Cooper Institute in Dallas and the University of Toronto faculty of education and health. And it doesn’t requirell that much more effort. Really.

The Finns inspired me. While researching new exercise ideas on the Web, oodles of sites devoted to the trend popped up. Starting out with my own cross-country ski poles, I walked around my neighbourhood, trying to get the hang of it.

The problem was the spikes on the bottom of the poles would skitter across the pavement, knocking me off balance. With a bit more hunting and clicking on the Web, I found some new-fangled poles manufactured by a small American-based company called Exerstrider. Founder Tom Rutlin, a former ski instructor, developed the urban-friendly poles with little rubber boots on the tips in order to keep in shape year-round.

His mission was to create a total workout that exercises the large muscles of the upper body to complement the leg work. “No one has to sweat profusely, pant breathlessly, feel the burn or wake up the next morning with sore muscles in order to get or stay fit,” he insists. Many enthusiasts have told him that exerstriding, as he calls it, is the first exercise they’ve ever truly enjoyed.

Next page: Practice makes perfect

Exerstriding requires practice
That’s not to say that it wasn’t a bit tricky to get into the groove. As a cross-country skier, I had some idea about how to work with poles. But I found it takes some practice pumping the arms just so, planting the poles at a 45-degree angle and then pushing off on dry land.

Like many people trying it for the first time, I started out by sawing my arm forward like I was cutting a log. The key is to keep your arm straight, with the elbow slightly bent, like you’re pumping the handle at a water well – not something most of us are familiar with anymore. But I finally got the stride down, especially with the help of a free demonstration video and handbook that come with the poles.

Naturally, I got some stares and comments as I made my way around the neighbourhood. One sunny November day last year, a city worker driving a snowplow stopped and yelled out his window, “You’re going to make the snow come early this year if you keep that up!” To which I replied, “Bring it on!” And blizzard, it did.
I found the poles very practical when navigating snowy, icy roads and sidewalks. (The rubber booties can be removed to expose cleat-like tips.) I felt I had some stability for the first time ever, a real sense of safety – in more ways than one: since I like to walk at night sometimes, the poles could come in handy if I needed to ward off untoward advances – not to mention snarling dogs.

Benefits are numerous
To my surprise, I love it. There’s something about the rhythm of walking with poles that keeps me energized and motivated. I especially like the pushing-off sensation, which puts a swaggering swivel in my walk. When I plant the poles, I can actually feel my stomach muscles, biceps and triceps working. Leaning on the poles takes the pressure off my sore knees; swinging them loosens up my tight shoulders.

As for hills, the poles actually make it a breeze to reach the top. The best part is that I breathe more deeply than I would if I were walking normally, which creates a sense of well-being and relaxation for the rest of the day.

In fact, after that particular nighttime stroll with the full moon overhead, I fixed myself a soothing cup of tea, took a hot shower and put myself to bed. I slept like a baby.