Markku Mustonen typically gets the same response when he walks with ski poles up the grassy hills leading to the top of Stone Mountain: “Hey buddy, looking for snow?”
But to the Finnish native, it’s not about the snow, especially in a place that had its last “major” snowfall — 2½ inches — nearly two years ago.
It’s about the ski poles, which Mustonen and others say add intensity to walking workouts and are a great tool for becoming fit.
Taking a page from his Nordic countrymen, Mustonen is trying to get others in the United States interested in the European practice of skiwalking, also known as Nordic walking.
“Slowly people are getting involved with it,” said Mustonen, president of Norcross, Ga.-based Skiwalk Inc., which organizes the local walking group and sells ski poles. “The reaction basically is, ‘Who is this crazy person?’ But once you explain it to them, then they say, ‘Oh, really? That makes sense.”’
The poles used by ski walkers are similar to those found on ski slopes — they are made of aluminum, fiberglass or ultralight carbon fiber. Skiwalking poles, however, typically have rubber tips so walkers can use them on hard surfaces such as streets or sidewalks. Some skiwalking poles telescope so they can be easily taken on trips.
Arm, shoulder workout
The poles, which help walkers propel themselves forward, help develop arm and shoulder muscles and get the heart pumping. A 2002 study by the Cooper Institute, a research organization in Dallas that focuses on exercise, found that people who walk with the poles burn 20 percent more calories than those who don’t.
It is unclear how many Americans participate in Nordic walking, but the International Nordic Walking Association estimates that more than 3.5 million people do it worldwide, mostly in Europe. Finnish kindergartners use ski poles in their schools’ physical education activities. Enthusiasts also hail from other, non-snowy locales, from the beaches of California to the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
“Anywhere you live, you can enjoy this,” said fitness instructor Malin Svensson, a native of Sweden who leads Nordic walking classes in Santa Monica, Calif., where she discovered she could easily ramp up her workouts by using the poles on the beach.
John Rudd, a 55-year-old engineering consultant in Austin, Texas, said he has used the poles on his four-mile walks five days a week since February and has lost 10 pounds. “I didn’t change anything other than added the use of the poles during my regular walking routine,” he said.
“It’s similar to doing an elliptical trainer that has handles. You’re exercising your whole body, not just your legs,” said Dr. A. Herbert Alexander, an orthopedic surgeon in Sun Valley, Idaho. “For individuals who have arthritis in the knees or hip, it’s like having a cane — it’s helpful taking weight away from the legs.”
For that reason and because the poles provide some stability, more senior citizens seem to be taking up ski walking, said Svensson, president of Nordic Walking USA, which promotes the exercise throughout North America.
Back at Stone Mountain Park, near Atlanta, about a dozen ski walkers — mainly Finnish families — swiftly used their poles to get a quick start on a five-mile walk.
Sid Barrett of Atlanta carried two old-fashioned walking sticks that he takes backpacking. His wife, Lauren, held two lime-green ski poles.
“I’m surprised more people don’t do it, because in backpacking, it’s standard,” he said.