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Nordic walking is not very hip - but easy on the hips

Mar. 6, 2013 - 12:23PM   |  
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Save the snotty comments. The Nordic walkers have heard them all.

Where's the snow?

Did you forget your skis?

Are you training for the Winter Olympics?

These athletes are hard to ignore. With a pole in each hand, stabbing at the ground with every stride, Nordic walking aficionados appear out of their element.

Nevertheless, the awkward-looking pursuit is gaining converts on the streets of Honolulu, where tropical snowfall is measured only in shave-ice spills.

It's particularly appealing to people whose sore knees and feet make workouts a pain.

"I didn't want to do any exercise that would injure my joints, like my knees, and Nordic walking takes weight off and pressure off your hips, knees and ankles," said Betsy Wilson, 56.

Wilson started Nordic walking about six months ago. She was working out regularly at a gym and wanted to boost her effort. Now she walks with her poles about three times a week, usually for an hour.

"You have to really stand up straight when you're walking," Wilson said. "You have to stand tall and have good posture. It makes your whole body feel better to stand up straight. You breathe better."

Wilson took her husband, Bob Sumpf, on one of her early walks. Sumpf, a marathoner who has run since the early 1970s, couldn't keep up. So he bought his own poles.

"I got over the geek factor in a hurry," the 60-year-old Sumpf said. "I think it is a legitimate form of exercise. It is better than just walking. It kind of gets you into a rhythm where you are going faster."

The similarities to cross-country skiing are no accident.

Sometimes called "ski walking," "hill bounding" or "ski striding," the activity originally developed decades ago in Finland as an off-season workout for Nordic skiers. Today, an estimated 7 million Europeans regularly use Nordic walking poles, which can cost $50 to almost $200.

"People in Europe, when they go walking, they walk with poles," said Eric Okamura, owner of Fit For Life, an exercise and massage studio in Iwilei, Hawaii. "It is very rare that you see them without them."

And yes, he's heard all the comments, too.

"There is a little dork factor associated with Nordic poles because they are so uncommon, but there are too many health benefits to ignore," he said. "So you let it roll off your back."

The Cooper Institute, which studies fitness and health, found that Nordic walking burned nearly 43 percent more calories than traditional walking.

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