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How Nordic walking can give you a leg up

The next time you see someone on a city path striding ahead with their ski poles, arms swinging and body upright, don’t make the same mistake I d id.
whole health column
Valerie Parr (left), who instructs pole walking to whomever steps up to learn in the Edmonton community of Alberta Avenue, gets ready for an outing with Patricia Dunnigan, Ina Selin (second from the right) and Al Selin. Photo supplied

The next time you see someone on a city path striding ahead with their ski poles, arms swinging and body upright, don’t make the same mistake I did. The first time I encountered ‘urban poling’ I dismissed it as some kind of fabricated exercise to lose weight or increase cardio. What I now know is those urban polers are practicing an official training method used by cross-country skiers in the off-season. That alone tells me urban poling, which uses techniques such as Nordic walking or pole walking, delivers results.  

Valerie Parr, an urban poling instructor with Alberta Avenue Community League in central Edmonton, says she didn’t know a thing about pole walking when she and her walking partner, Margaret Larsen, stepped up for training three years ago. The Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL), with grant money from Alberta Culture and Tourism, was offering 10 sets of poles plus instruction to any interested community league. 

“We weren’t looking to get involved in pole walking, but when we heard the instruction and poles were being offered free, we thought, it would be ridiculous if we didn’t take that up,” Valerie tells me.  

She’ll be 69 this spring, but that didn’t stop her from "jumping at the chance’"to learn something new. 

“Being active is very much part of who I am,” says Parr.  

So after a half-day of instruction and training, they knew how the poles were specially designed for walking rather than skiing, how to hold the upper body, how to push off with the poles.  

“It felt good to be out there,” she recalls. “We kind of got excited about it.” 

According to Dr. Agnes Coutinho, advisory board chair of Urban Poling – a Canadian company that was one of the first to bring Nordic walking to Canada – there are more than250 research studies identifying the health benefits of adding specialized poles to any walking routine.  

Unlike regular walking, the added motion of swinging and pushing off with Nordic poles works the body more strenuously. Pole walking uses 90 percent of a walker’s muscles and burns almost as many calories as jogging. But unlike jogging, pole walking is low impact on the joints, which makes it especially appealing to older adults. 

It’s also a social activity that attracts anyone of any age. So for those of us 55+ looking for a way to get out with others this spring and build stamina, here are some of the ways urban poling makes a dramatic difference. 

  • It’ll brighten your day: The upright posture steadies your balance, strengthens core muscleand improves mood and confidence. 
  • Your knees and hips will thank you: The poles let you offload weight from your hips and knees into your upper body. You can walk further or even pain-free. 
  • It makes up for those extra calories at the dinner table: Research shows that urban poling burns as much as 20 per cent more calories than standard walking, and helps keep blood sugars in a healthy range. 
  • It’s all in one: Nordic walking uses virtually all the body’s major muscle groups with every stride, contracts your abdominals more than 1,000 times per km and offers great cardiovascular conditioning. 
  • You can head out in any season: The poles provide great stability on challenging terrain, including ice and snow
  • It brings generations together: Even if you shy away from social interactions, the communal nature of urban poling takes the focus off one on one exchanges, allowing for a sense of natural kinship, independent of age.   

While Valerie and Margaret now know the benefits of pole walking for body and mind, they also recognize its wider social impact 

We do it to get out walking in the community,” says Parr. “People stop and say hi, ask what we’re doing, have a chatIt’s neighbours getting to know neighbours.” 

To find a community league in Edmonton that offers pole walking, or to start your own group, find EFCLleague walking program at www.efcl.org. 

In Calgary, go to the city’s recreation website at liveandplay.calgary.ca or download the Spring and Summer Recreation Program Guide acalgary.ca and look for Nordic pole walking.  

If you’re looking for one-on-one instruction, urban poling instructors in the Edmonton and Calgary area can be found on the Urban Poling website, at urbanpoling.com.