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Nordic Walking Catching On

Winter weather turns many Americans into couch potatoes. Getting out and walking is not only good for boosting your mood during cold, gloomy days, but for keeping weight in check, too.

Martica Heaner, an exercise physiologist and author of "Cross-training for Dummies," says that going for a walk is one of the best things you can do. She says many people find it hard to be motivated to do it but she suggests that they try the latest fitness trend, Nordic walking.

Walking with poles originated in Finland, hence the term "Nordic" walking. A group of cross-country skiers wanted to find a way to train during the off-season or when there was no snow. They found that walking with the help of special poles to propel the body with more power was a perfect way to stay in shape. The trend ignited throughout Europe and is especially popular in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Germany.

Heaner, a certified Nordic walking instructor, says that Nordic walking was first introduced to the United States in 2004.

"It's a big hit, especially in areas with a tradition of active, outdoorsy lifestyles like California, Vermont, Colorado, Arizona, Maryland and Florida," she says. "But there are even people who do Nordic walking in Central Park in New York City."

Some Nordic walk on their own or with a friend. Others attend group Nordic walking classes that are often offered by health clubs.

Although anyone can walk without using poles, many people can get even more benefits by adding poles. Walkers who want a greater challenge, or runners who want to lessen their impact, find that using poles helps propel them faster.

People with joint injuries, beginning exercisers or seniors often find that the Nordic walking poles provide more support when walking.

Research from the Cooper Institute in Dallas found that a person can burn more than 40 percent more calories when Nordic walking compared to walking without poles. So a person who might burn around 350 calories walking for an hour, could burn up to 500 calories using the Nordic walking technique. Or they could burn the same amount of calories in a shorter amount of time: walking for 40 minutes without poles is about equivalent in calories to walking 25 minutes using the Nordic walking technique.

To get started, all you need are a pair of poles, comfortable clothes and a pair of walking shoes. The poles should fit your height so that they can function as an extension of your arms as you swing.

One manufacturer, Excel, recommends the following pole sizes based on height. If you are:

  • Less than 5'1", use poles that are 105 cm
  • Less than 5'4", use poles that are 110 cm
  • 5'4" to 5'7", use poles that are 115 cm
  • 5'7" to 5'10", use poles that are 120 cm
  • Over 5'10, use poles that are 125 cm
  • Over 6'2" use poles 130 cm
  • Over 6'4", use poles that are 135 cm

    Poles can be purchased online or at a local sporting goods store and sales assistants should be able to assist with proper sizing.

    Nordic walking can be done on pavement, asphalt roads, off-road dirt trails and even snow. The poles have special tips. When you are on concrete or hard surfaces you use the end with a rubber "paw" for traction. If you are in dirt, ice or snow, you can remove the rubber tip to expose a metal spike that will help keep you stable.

    Make sure to wear appropriate shoes such as hiking books or snow boots when walking on varying terrain.

    To master the Nordic walking technique, you lean slightly forward as you walk, planting the poles in front of your body — next to the foot that is stepping to the front, to support the forward lean and push off to propel you forward. It is easy to walk with the poles without really employing the proper technique, so it is important to practice.

    You do not simply "dig" into the ground, you try to roll yourself forward and gather momentum while you walk. "When you've got it, it feels a bit like a ball rolling down a hill and you feel in sync with the poles and your stride," said Heaner.

    When going uphill, you should increase the length of each step you take and lean into the hill. When going downhill, you should shorten your stride, lean slightly back as if you were sitting into the slope of the incline and use the poles as brakes to slow down your descent and absorb some of the shock your body takes with each downward step.

    Always make sure to check with your doctor and warm-up before doing any strenuous exercise. If you are going outside in the cold, dress in layers, cover your head and hands and bring water and snacks, especially if you will be out for long periods of time.

    For more information check out www.nordicwalker.com.

    Click here to find a Nordic walking instructor near you.

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