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But where's the snow? Pole walking with a twist

While the concept of Nordic walking is still foreign to many Americans, it's been gaining traction over the last few years in the United States.

Betsy Bridges has gotten some strange looks while participating in her latest form of fitness, Nordic walking. It involves poles similar to those used in cross-country skiing, but there are a couple key differences — no skis and no snow.

So onlookers are understandably confused when Bridges takes to the sidewalks near her home in Los Angeles.

"Most people are stunned," says Bridges, 53, a homemaker. "They think I'm getting ready to go skiing."

Nordic walking, though, is actually meant for dry land. And while the concept is still foreign to many Americans, it's been gaining traction over the last few years in the United States, where an estimated few hundred thousand people now participate, says Bernd Zimmermann, president of the American Nordic Walking Association, a group founded in 2004 that certifies instructors.

He and other industry sources say the activity is picking up speed in Florida, the Pacific Northwest, New England, even California.

Nordic walking started in Finland, with the first specially designed poles introduced in 1997, and has been increasingly popular throughout Europe and Australia.

Walking in '4-wheel drive'
Zimmermann describes the activity as a "cross between fitness walking and cross-country skiing." Participants walk at a fast clip and swing the poles, pushing off the ground for added resistance, to get an upper-body workout as well as lower-body conditioning.

He likens regular walking to operating a car in "2-wheel drive," whereas Nordic walking kicks things into "4-wheel drive." A small study published in 2002 by the Cooper Aerobics Institute in Dallas supports that assertion: Results showed that Nordic walking burned an average of 20 percent more calories than regular walking.

That's part of the appeal for Charlene Vitale, 54, a benefits worker in Buffalo, N.Y., who's been Nordic walking since last fall. "It's a more physical workout than just regular walking," she says, and it seems to be paying off. "My hips are a little more slim than normal."

Most enthusiasts are baby boomers, particularly women, looking for an activity that's easy on their joints.

There's also the social factor, says Jill Bronsky, an instructor in Buffalo who's worked with Vitale. Women especially like group classes where they can get some exercise while passing the time talking with their friends, she says.

New participants also aren't as intimidated by Nordic walking as they might be by an aerobics class full of fancy moves, Bronsky says.

And as with most fitness trends, people like the novelty aspect.

That's fine by Rob Sweetgall, who spoke last month on the benefits of walking during a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Dallas. It's a bit of an understatement to say he's a walking enthusiast — he has walked across the United States seven times. Walking is simple, free, easy on the knees and doesn't require any special equipment, he says.

But people don't always recognize walking as actual "exercise," says Sweetgall, president of Creative Walking, Inc., a company specializing in walking and wellness programs. So if it takes poles to get them interested and to think that walking actually "counts" as exercise, he's all for it.

While the risks of injury with Nordic walking are considered low, as with regular walking, Zimmermann recommends some training sessions for anyone interested in trying it.

"It's not complex but it requires coordination of the upper and lower body," he says. "You need a full arm swing of motion, you don't just hammer down the poles."

The poles actually can be a safety aid for older adults or others who may not be super steady on their feet, notes Patty Freedson, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But she advises all beginners to start slowly, with short walks of no more than 10 minutes, and then progress to longer ones.

It's also recommended that users buy special Nordic walking poles, sold in the United States by two main companies, Leki and Exel. Prices range from $70 to $200.

Do I look funny?
Some people, though, are a little embarrassed to give Nordic walking a go. "We still get the 'Where's the snow?' comment," says Suzanne Nottingham, a personal trainer in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., who teaches an instructor-training program for Leki.

Bridges says she's gotten over the initial embarrassment she felt while using the poles in Los Angeles, and now she even folds them up and packs them in her suitcase when she travels. She not only likes the good workout she gets with the poles and the convenience of the activity, but she also enjoys being outdoors.

"It forces you to get out and see the world," Bridges says.

She's taken her poles to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Madrid and New York City, where she got the most amusing reaction.

She walked into Saks Fifth Avenue with the poles and startled a saleswoman talking on her cell phone. "Oh my god," the woman said into the phone. "Someone just came skiing into the store."

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.