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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Skiing without the snow

Nordic walking adds upper body workout to fitness routine
Rick Polito

MAKING EXERCISE FUN: Fitness trainer Tina Vindum demonstrates Nordic walking, a new fitness craze that has caught on fire this year. The activity started in Europe and is expected to continue to gain momentum in the United States. Special to the IJ/Zachary Kaufman

THE NEWEST TREND in fitness isn't just hitting the trail. It's hitting the trail with three feet of aluminum and a sharp point.
Nordic walking is striding its way onto American bike paths and hiking trails as the newest way to get fit fast. Nordic walkers use a pair of poles similar to those used by cross country skiers to add an upper body workout to their walks.

Or their runs.

Tina Vindum does a little of both.

Vindum is the trainer behind Mill Valley-based Outdoor Action Fitness and is promoting Nordic walking as the best fit for a fit lifestyle. Anybody can do it and they can do it anywhere.

"I keep them in the back of my car and I just fit it in," says Vindum. "It's cross country skiing without the skis."

Or the snow.

The lack of snow was the inspiration behind Nordic walking in the first place. Cross country skiers in northern Europe were using the poles to train in the off-season. The concept was first promoted as a fitness activity for non-skiers in the late '90s in Norway and has since spread across Europe.

The poles and the Nordic walking workout started getting notice in the United States in the last year. "It's very new here," says Vindum, who is helping promote the poles for Swix, a Norwegian ski equipment manufacturer.

"In Europe, it's everywhere."

The concept, and the equipment, are simple. The poles have straps that aid the grip and provide leverage. The walker uses a smooth stride and holds the poles loosely with their elbows at a 90- degree angle. Timed with their stride, they then dig in with the poles and push off, calling the arms and shoulder into the movement. "You can propel your body forward," Vindum says.

It is not a difficult movement to learn. Vindum took four days of classes to become a certified instructor, but she can teach the basic technique in four minutes.

She makes her clients sweat a lot longer than that.

Lea Gamble of San Francisco had been training with Vindum for a long time before the poles showed up. They'd been running the hills and stopping for crunches and other no-equipment strength training. The Nordic workout changed everything, Gamble says. The first thing she noticed was the "intensity." The poles are "an entirely different experience."

"It feels like a much more efficient workout," Gamble says.

The poles have since changed her expectations and her body.

"I felt like I was fit before, but you start using the poles you realize there is a whole other level of fitness."

Mill Valley real estate consultant Karen Fairty was introduced to Nordic walking in the spring. "I'm addicted," she now says.

Fairty alternates between running and the Nordic striding. She feels stronger on her runs now. "I like that it works your upper body as well," she says.

Vindum claims the response is common. Her clients "like being pushed."

"I've been doing this (personal training) since '95 and I didn't get a puker until this," she says.

Nobody needs to push that hard to get something out of it. Vindum says she sees older people on the trails using the poles - "For them, it's two extra legs and some balance." But anybody who walks could benefit. The poles make walking a more conscious activity. It's hard to amble with the poles. "There's a little more tempo," she says.

That means people get more exercise in less time, Vindum says, pointing to a study by exercise researchers at the Cooper Institute showing that Nordic walking could burn 23 percent more calories than simple walking.

Used correctly, the poles effectively turn a cardiovascular workout into a full-body exercise. "With running it's just your legs," Vindum says. Holding hand weights on a walk only adds the arms and shoulders. Vindum says that properly used, the poles reach the chest and the core abdominals.

But she will admit that Nordic walking draws some stares and unsolicited comments.

"Where's the snow?" being one of them.

The stares and jokes will fade, Vindum predicts. "In the '70s, people thought running was weird."

None of that is stopping Fairty. "It's a little dorky," she says, but she's willing to look past that when she sees the results.

"You're getting so much better of a workout that you don't care."


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