Pole to pole

When it comes to exercise, Brian Johnston finds Nordic walking takes pole position.

If you ask me, jogging is horrible, doing pool laps a little solitary, and walking so pleasurable it can’t really be counted as exercise. If only something existed that combined the benefits of all three, I might actually get up off the sofa and into a fitness regime. Alarmingly, on my last trip to Europe, I ran out of excuses. In the flower-filled Austrian meadows and along the

lakeshores of Switzerland, shoals of cheery, chatty people were speeding along, practising the latest fitness craze: Nordic walking.

It looked enjoyable and sociable but – to judge from the puffing and perspiring – a good workout as well. Nordic walking originated in Finland as a method to train cross-country skiers in summer. It’s best described as dynamic walking with the aid of poles, used not for support but for propelling you forwards (experienced Nordic walkers move almost as fast as a jogger). It burns up to 20 per cent more calories than ordinary walking, significantly raises the heart rate and reduces muscle tension in the

neck and shoulders. You get an upperbody workout on the chest, shoulder and abdominal muscles, but because some of

the walker’s weight is on the poles, there is less pressure on the back and lower joints, especially the knees.

Back from Europe, I discovered Nordic walking isn’t entirely unknown in Australia either. Okay, you may be heckled by passing truckies as you speed along the footpath (“Where’s the snow, mate!”), but increasing numbers of Australians are taking up the sport.

It might soon be all the rage: this is the world’s fastest-growing recreational activity. After all, Nordic walking is pleasant, an ideal group activity, and a more efficient exercise than mere walking. It’s easy to learn and easy to practise; the proper technique can be acquired after just a few lessons, even for the terminally uncoordinated such as myself. It’s great value too: all you need is poles and decent runners. Nordic poles have a metal tip for use on grass, sand or snow. Even here, couch potatoes will be hard-pressed to find excuses: if none of the aforementioned ground coverings is available, poles are fitted with rubber pads for hard surfaces such as footpaths.

I’m not a Nordic walking fanatic, but find it hugely enjoyable. It has certainly improved my physical fitness and – am I imagining things? – made me more cheerful as well. Maybe it’s because it’s an outdoor exercise. Birds cheep, the sun shines, my poles click along, and all’s well with the world. If this is vigorous exercise, how can it be so nice?

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