Nordic pole walking: trend yields a full-body outdoors workout

You might do a double-take when you see Sarah Parke and Kim Prendergast walking down the street.

No, they're not living out some bizarre snow-skiing fantasy to cope with Florida's summer heat.

Rather, they're getting in a full-body workout through a trendy exercise method called Nordic pole walking.

"You use 90 percent of your muscles when you do pole walking," says Parke, co-owner of the Foot Solutions shoe store in Sarasota, Fla. "It burns more calories and there is less stress on your joints, because you're not jumping on anything. You're just walking."

Nordic pole walking is capable of burning 46 percent more calories than regular exercise walking or jogging, and can also help improve posture and upper body strength, according to research from Nordic Pole Walking USA.

Resembling cross-country skiers without the snow beneath them, Parke and Prendergast shift the poles they hold in each hand front to back as they walk down a shopping center sidewalk.

Prendergast, a personal trainer at Shapes, describes the poling motion as more of a tapping than a push.

Though a little strange to observe - and try - the result of walking in this manner is that the upper body and core of the individual are engaged in the workout.

Parke and Prendergast hold Nordic pole walking workshops at the Foot Solutions store.

Nordic pole walking can be traced back to the 1930s in Finland, where cross-country skiers continued to use their ski poles during summer training treks.

In turn, the Finns seemed to maintain a high degree of health.

"It's not just like walking," Parke says. "You get a whole lot incorporated into the whole thing."

The poles used in the walking method are typically made of aluminum or light carbon fiber and are often adjustable.

They are similar to ski poles, but have rubber tips for traction along streets and sidewalks.

The rubber tips on some poles are removable to expose a metal prong that is more suitable for beach walking.

"You really get a workout when you do it on the beach," Parke says.

Poles typically sell for between $50 and $100.

Parke offers a set of poles for $49.95 at Foot Solutions.

The poles are free if a customer buys a pair of special shoes with rounded bottoms - which retail for $235 - that bring a more challenging and thorough exercise experience.

Parke said the shoes aren't necessary to participate in Nordic pole walking.

Roughly 1 million people in the United States participate in Nordic pole walking, estimates Bernd Zimmermann, founder and president of the Nordic Walking Association.

Klaus Schwanbeck, a Naples resident who founded Nordic Pole Walking USA, said about 7 million people engage in the activity in Europe. About 500 people regularly do the activity in the Naples area, he said.

Schwanbeck said he contracted with Foot Solutions to promote the activity.

He just finished a yearlong educational campaign with residents of various communities in the Naples area in hopes of encouraging them to participate in the activity.

Schwanbeck acknowledges he gets some strange looks from time to time when he is out Nordic pole walking.

"They've got a lot of questions," Schwanbeck said by phone from Germany. "But after one sentence of explanation, we immediately get the questions, `Where can I get the poles? Where I can get more information about it?'"

Parke said she, too, got more than a second glance from passersby when she was Nordic pole walking on the beach.

"People would stop and say, `What are you doing?'" Parke says. "I think most people think, `I can do that.' But there is some coordination with it."