It may take its fair share of ribbing, but Nordic walking is a fun and effective way to keep fit, writes Paul Little.
It began as an off-season training regimen for skiers in Finland in the 1940s. Now Nordic walking is a globally practised form of exercise and the butt of jokes for people who find the sight of apparently sane grown-ups using ski poles to walk city streets and parks faintly ludicrous. Nordic walker and trainer Chrissie Wright has heard most of the jokes.
"I often go to Whangamata and walk on the beach," says Chrissie, "and quite a number of people have said, 'I suppose you take your surfboard up the mountain."' The wags.
A freelance urology nurse by day, Chrissie is not the first in her family to take to the poles. Her sister was a few steps ahead of her and recommended Chrissie take it up when she had a back injury. More recently, her septuagenarian dad, who was a keen tramper but had given it up after a couple of falls, has been stepping out.
Her oldest pupil was a 92-year-old. "He was very frail. When he started he couldn't get to the end of his street, but with the poles he could see where he was going.
It meant he could get out and do some exercise."
Nordic walking is reputed to be good for all sorts of ailments and conditions, including recovery from breast cancer surgery and strokes. In Germany it's recognised as an effective rehab technique and health insurers cover it if it is recommended as therapy.
Another star performer Chrissie taught was a woman with Parkinson's disease, for whom she had low expectations. "She could hardly walk when she came to me. She moved with her head down, shoulders hunched and a shuffling gait. I thought, 'How am I going to get her moving?' But once she got comfortable with the technique we sped it up and almost instantly she was upright. It was amazing."
Regular hotbeds of Nordic walking in Auckland include Cornwall Park, the Domain and the waterfront. Chrissie says it takes three to four hours to show someone the ropes with the poles.
How different is it from regular walking?
Poles apart, apparently. The key difference is that it exercises the upper body as you apply pressure through your poles. You can apply as little or as much pressure as you like and give yourself a tougher or gentler workout by including lots of hills or staying on the flat.
"Once you get the hang of it you can put a lot of pressure into your pole and propel yourself forward," says Chrissie. "You can alternate - put more pressure on the upper body and take the weight off your legs, or do it the other way around."
There are no tricky manoeuvres to learn. "You just use the natural walking step, where the right leg and left arm go forward, then vice versa. Nordic walking just enhances that movement."
The sport suits all ages and just about any surface, so is great when travelling, and although there is plenty of merchandise to splash out on, the only equipment you need is a pair of shoes and your poles, which range in price from around $150 to $250 plus, and come in such varieties as 100 per cent carbon or glass fibre composite. "The higher the carbon level, the more expensive, lighter and stronger the poles are," says Chrissie.
The most serious risk factor Chrissie can think of is that some dogs take exception to the poles. She advises holding the pole still in such a case though it's likely that in a direct confrontation a dog would come off worse, especially with a 100 per cent carbon pole.
If you're keen
Nordic Walking New Zealand has been teaching the sport since 2006. It has 50 leaders and around 1000 clients throughout the country. For more information and details of your closest instructor contact Barbara Faust-Heffner Ph 09 432 0386 or 021 299 8840.