Nordic Walking is booming in Germany. But while outsiders may criticize "those people with the poles" as silly looking fadists, they may soon start to wonder: Why are there so many of them?
Taking it to the streets: Nordic Walkers in a Munich park
They are everywhere the joggers and rollerbladers used to be: in parks, on woodland paths, even on beaches. Dressed for jogging but carrying a spindly ski pole in each hand, they walk quickly and take long strides, swinging the poles back and forth. Frequently middle aged or older, they walk alone, in pairs, or in groups.
They are Nordic Walkers, the vanguard of a new fitness craze that is sweeping Germany. And many say they are here to stay.
Nordic Walking off the beaten path, in Chiemgau, southern Germany
A little history: Nordic Walking was developed as a summer training method for the Finnish cross-country ski and winter-biathlon teams. The poles were shortened to make up for the fact that the athlete, without skis, would have a shorter stride. A rolling, heel-to-toe step was devised and combined with alternating arm swings that push the pole into the ground, helping to distribute the walker's body weight.
The result of this integration of upper body exercise and walking is a complete workout: cardiac training that uses some 90 percent of the muscles in the body, according to the German Nordic Fitness Association, the sport's official umbrella organization in Germany. Correctly executed, Nordic Walking is 40 to 50 percent more effective than regular walking, in terms of benefits and energy use, the DNV says.
First introduced outside of Finland as "Pole Walking," the sport began its exponential growth trajectory in Germany around 2000. Exactly how many people participate in the sport is unknown. But based on its Germany sales, the Finnish walking-stick maker Exel estimates the numbers of Nordic Walkers in German soared from 10,000 in 2001 to 120,000 in 2002 – to around 2.2 million in 2004.
Cross country ski racers developed the sport
The reasons for the sport's popularity are many, according to Theo Walther, who runs the Theo Walther Nordic Walking School in Bonn. A trained Nordic Walking instructor since 2002, Walther said a growing interest in preventive medicine in Germany has raised interest in Nordic Walking.
"I think more than 50 percent of Germans have computer jobs. They don’t move enough and have health problems as a result," Walther said. "Nordic Walking can be tailored to people at all ages and stages of fitness or ability. ... It can be done like a competitive sport, but we also do it with handicapped people and in old age homes."
Abetting the boom is the willingness of many German insurers to pay for Nordic Walking instruction. Faced with frightening national statistics on the rise of chronic illness, back problems and obesity, more and more insurers are subsidising the cost of fitness courses. The aim is to prevent more expensive-to-treat ailments, such as diabetes, heart disease and slipped discs, down the road.
Indeed, according to the DNV, studies have tied Nordic Walking to improvements in areas as diverse as cardiac health, Parkinsons disease, migraines, post-op recovery, spinal cord mobility – even impotence.
"Many of the people who come to us had injuries from other sports," said Robin Wiegert of the Nordic Walking Academy in Freiburg. Wiegert, already a personal trainer and physical therapist, came to Nordic Walking two and a half years ago after two knee operations put an end to his jogging.
As a result of the boom, businesses like Wiegert's and Walther's have taken off.
The poles are key to Nordic Walking
"We're bursting at the seams," said Walther, whose Nordic Walking training company opened in 2000 and now employs 12 trainers and offers more than 60 courses a year.
Other industries have felt the effects of Nordic fitness as well. Increasingly, hotels, spas and resort towns in Germany are creating especially graded trails for Nordic Walking or Nordic Snowshoe -- the sport's ski-free winter version. Nature reserves across Germany are renaming themselves "Nordic Walking Areas," hotels are offering Nordic Walking getaways, and tour operators are selling Nordic Walking tour packages both at home and abroad.
The sporting goods industry has also been glad to exploit the trend, with lightweight poles and specially made athletic shoes – made to absorb impact in the heel rather than the toe -- flying off the shelves.
But despite the attempt to cash in on the trend, a big part of the sport's widespread appeal is that it doesn’t take much of an investment to get started.
Nordic Walking near Stockholm, Sweden
"People just need to buy some good poles -- they cost between 50 and 100 euros. And eventually special walking shoes. But regular running shoes are OK to get started," said Walther. He also said said taking a beginner course is absolutely necessary, in order to learn the proper technique and prevent injury.
Ute Neff, a graphic designer who regularly spends 10 hours a day at her computer, took her first Nordic Walking course a year ago. "I was looking for a good way to get some activity back into my life," said the 40 year old from Bonn.
After taking a beginner course, she said, "I loved getting out and moving around. It feels great, burning all that energy, being out in nature, being with the other people in the course."
Neff had a message for people who scoff at Nordic Walking as something for people who are too old or wimpy to do "real" sports.
"It is completely exhausting," she said. "First of all, it is really not that easy to get the hang of doing it right.You have to re-learn how to walk."
Also, she said, if she pushes herself, then she is "completely sweaty and wiped out. But in a good way. I feel great for two or three days afterward."
Walther acknowledges Nordic Walking appeals to seniors people because it can be done at a very low-intensity level and is unlikely to lead to injury. But the image of Nordic Walking as a "retirees only" pass-time is changing, he said.
"Now I'm getting clients with piercings," he said.