Striding with Poles: Research Shows the New Method of Exercise Beats Walking by a Mile

By Kreiter, Ted | The Saturday Evening Post, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Striding with Poles: Research Shows the New Method of Exercise Beats Walking by a Mile


Kreiter, Ted, The Saturday Evening Post


Nearly three years ago, Anne-Marie Westenberg's doctor told her she should start walking for her health. But at five feet, six inches tall and weighing nearly 400 pounds, the 42-year-old woman found walking to be a tall order.

Then she discovered what she calls "the sticks"--actually cross-country ski poles converted for fitness walking. The sticks eased the stress on her overburdened legs and gave her a sense of confidence when maneuvering. After a few months using the sticks, she worked up to walking two miles a day and even farther on weekends. Today, Anne-Marie weighs under 200 pounds. She attributes her successful turnaround to "those sticks."

What helped Anne-Marie lose weight was the relatively new conditioning activity known as fitness pole walking, also called Nordic walking, pole striding, or exerstriding. Nordic walking has soared in popularity in Europe in recent years, especially in Finland. According to a poll there last year, some 18 percent of the fitness-loving Finnish population use walking poles to keep in shape. In the U.S., fitness pole walking has gained a toehold mainly among avid outdoor walkers and hikers, but because the poles shift weight away from the lower limbs and make walking safer, fitness poles also are showing up in cardiac and orthopedic rehabilitation units of hospitals and clinics.

To those unfamiliar with pole walking, the activity may look a little silly--like cross-country skiing without the skis--but those who have tried it know that pole walking beats regular walking by a mile. Pole walking pioneer Tom Rutlin of Madison, Wisconsin, made that discovery 17 years ago after developing a bone spur on his heel.

"I tried to run through the pain of it," the former cross-country ski instructor and inveterate jogger says. "Then one day my good sense kicked in. I went home and got my ski poles."

With the support of the poles, Rutlin was able to run again, but instead of his usual 70-minute workout, he had to stop after 45 minutes.

"I was completely spent," he says. In trying to figure out why, he realized that with poles, "you're using so much more muscle mass that your metabolic rate is quite a bit higher, so you get a shorter workout and a lot more intensive one." Instead of working just your leg muscles, pole walking exercises all the main muscles in the upper body, including abdominals, biceps, forearm, pectorals, and spinal rectors.

Rutlin realized right away that he was onto something significant and tried to spread the world. He first used the poles to train the University of Wisconsin rowing crew. The coach told him when he started that he thought there wasn't much talent on the team that year, Rutlin says. But the team surprisingly went on to capture two national rowing championships, thanks in part, Rutlin believes, to increased fitness from their pole running workouts. But the poles failed to catch on with the larger rowing community, and Rutlin's attempt to interest National Football League trainers in the poles met with similar indifference.

So Rutlin switched from running with the poles to walking and began manufacturing and selling them to the power-walking and jogging public. In the late 1990s, European makers of ski and exercise equipment also took up the ideal and began selling walking poles in Europe as well as the U.S., where they have been slower catching on.

Recent scientific studies bear out the claims about pole walking's beneficial effects. Women using walking poles for 12 weeks in a University of Wisconsin study increased their upper-body muscle endurance by 37 percent, compared with a 13 percent gain for women who did regular walking.

The Cooper Clinic reported an average 20 percent increase in calorie consumption using walking poles. However, Rutlin believes most walking-pole users can do better than that by using the right technique, which is to keep the arms out straight, as in cross-country skiing.

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