If you’ve been to Meadowbrook Park on a Tuesday evening recently, you’ve seen them, among the runners, inline skaters, and parents pushing strollers: The walkers with the poles.
It’s called Nordic walking, and it’s been around only since 1997. It was developed in Finland as a way for cross-country skiers to keep up their fitness during the warm weather months. It spread quickly through Scandinavia and to Germany, and eventually to the United States.
Lynn Wachtel of Champaign discovered Nordic walking about eight years ago at an outdoors show she regularly attended as co-owner, with husband Ira, of Champaign Surplus. Then she helped lead walks during a walking for health conference held at the University of Illinois in 2005, and she trained to be a Nordic walking instructor.
She convinced Ira that Champaign Surplus should carry Nordic walking poles (lighter and more flexible than trekking poles, which are used for balance and support on rough terrain, hills and stream crossings), and she’s introduced many local residents to the activity.
“The perceived exertion is not every high. You don’t have to work very hard but you’re still involving lots of muscle groups,” Wachtel said, adding that Nordic walking engages 95 percent of the muscle groups in the body, including chest, back and arms when done properly. It increases your heart rate and burns more calories than regular walking.
“It allows a person to use their normal walking gait and arm swing,” unlike walking while carrying weights, she said. “The pole just fits right into that.”
Mary Schell of Champaign has been Nordic walking for about a year and a half, and she’s hooked. She’d lost some weight and wanted to keep it off, and also wanted an activity that wouldn’t be hard on her knees.
“I wanted to do some more effective exercising. I hit 55 and it was time to do something,” Schell said. “It just sounded interesting.”
She walked the Illinois Half-Marathon last year with trekking poles, and this year with the Nordic walking poles she got for Christmas.
“I have really good arms for someone in her late 50s,” she said recently, pulling up her T-shirt sleeve to prove it.
Gary Cziko of Urbana has been cross-country skiing and using poles for inline skating for years. Last winter he used trekking poles while walking the steep hills of Berkeley, Calif. Then he began using poles for walking around Champaign-Urbana.
“I think what I like about the poles is it extends the range of walking on both sides,” Cziko said. “For people who have some difficulty walking or some joint pain or balance (problems), it makes it more accessible. On the other end, it makes walking more of a workout.”
Cziko said using poles distributes the effort and makes walking easier.
“It’s a lot more fun, as long as you’re willing to look a little different,” he said.
Wachtel agreed, saying a walker can use the poles and walk as aggressively or leisurely as he or she chooses and still get an upper body workout. And it’s good for athletes who are doing rehab after an injury or need a less strenuous workout for an easy day.
A few months after Wachtel began Nordic walking, she saw what a difference it could make in her conditioning. She went on an annual backcountry canoe trip. Normally she’d be tired and sore after the first day on the water.
But this time, she found she had much more endurance.
“There’s really nothing else I do that quite prepares me for paddling like Nordic walking,” she said.
Lynn Wachtel will hold two Introduction to Nordic Walking workshops in August at Champaign Surplus, 303 S. Neil St., C.
They are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. on Aug. 18 and 9 to 11 a.m. Aug. 21.
The workshops will cover the history, benefits and techniques of Nordic Walking. Participants must pre-register for the workshops at Champaign Surplus. They should come dressed for walking. Demonstration poles will be provided.
Photos below: Nordic Walking at Meadowbrook Park; Lynn Wachtel at Meadowbrook Park.