All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for April 2003

Striding With Poles

March/April 2003
By Ted Kreiter
The Saturday Evening Post

Nearly three years ago, Anne- Marie Westenberg’s doctor told her she should start walking for her health. But at five feet, six inches tall and weighing nearly 400 pounds, the 42-year-old woman found walking to bea tall order.

Then she discovered what she calls “the sticks”—actually cross-country ski poles converted for fitness walking. The sticks eased the stress on her overburdened legs and gave her a sense of confidence when maneuvering. After a few months using the sticks, she worked up to walking two miles a day and even farther on weekends. Today, Anne-Marie weighs under 200 pounds. She attributes her successful turnaround to “those sticks.”

What helped Anne-Marie lose weight was the relatively new conditioning activity known as fitness pole walking, also called Nordic walking, pole striding, or exerstriding. Nordic walking has soared in popularity in Europe in recent years, especially in Finland. According to a poll there last year, some 18 percent of the fitness-loving Finnish population use walking poles to keep in shape. In the U.S., fitness pole walking has gained a toehold mainly among avid outdoor walkers and hikers, but because the poles shift weight away from the lower limbs and make walking safer, fitness poles also are showing up in cardiac and orthopedic rehabilitation units of hospitals and clinics.

To those unfamiliar with pole walking, the activity may look a little silly—like cross-country skiing without the skis—but those who have tried it know that pole walking beats regular walking by a mile. Pole walking pioneer Tom Rutlin of Madison, Wisconsin, made that discovery 17 years ago after developing a bone spur on his heel.

“I tried to run through the pain of it,” the former cross-country ski instructor and inveterate jogger says. “Then one day my good sense kicked in. I went home and got my ski poles.”

With the support of the poles, Rutlin was able to run again, but instead of his usual 70-minute workout, he had to stop after 45 minutes.

“I was completely spent,” he says. In trying to figure out why, he realized that with poles, “you’re using so much more muscle mass that your metabolic rate is quite a bit higher, so you get a shorter workout and a lot more intensive one.” Instead of working just your leg muscles, pole walking exercises all the main muscles in the upper body, including abdominals, biceps, forearm, pectorals, and spinal rectors.

Rutlin realized right away that he was onto something significant and tried to spread the word. He first used the poles to train the University of Wisconsin rowing crew. The coach told him when he started that he thought there wasn’t much talent on the team that year, Rutlin says. But the team surprisingly went on to capture two national rowing championships, thanks in part, Rutlin believes, to increased fitness from their pole running workouts. But the poles failed to catch on with the larger rowing community, and Rutlin’s attempt to interest National Football League trainers in the poles met with similar indifference.

So Rutlin switched from running with the poles to walking and began manufacturing and selling them to the power-walking and jogging public. In the late 1990s, European makers of ski and exercise equipment also took up the idea and began selling walking poles in Europe as well as the U.S., where they have been slower catching on.

Recent scientific studies bear out the claims about pole walking’s beneficial effects. Women using walking poles for 12 weeks in a University of Wisconsin study increased their upper-body muscle endurance by 37 percent, compared with a 13 percent gain for women who did regular walking.

The Cooper Clinic reported an average 20 percent increase in calorie consumption using walking poles. However, Rutlin believes most walking-pole users can do better than that by using the right technique, which is to keep the arms out straight, as in cross-country skiing. “We find that most people can get a 30 to 40 percent increase in calorie consumption using our techniques,” he says.

Another plus of pole walking is that while it improves upper-body fitness, it also takes a load off the knees and legs. Dr. J. Richard Steadman, an orthopedic surgeon who works with elite athletes at Vail, Colorado, has calculated that a five-foot, six-inch person weighing 155-165 pounds walking with poles would reduce the accumulated force on his lower extremities by some six tons when walking a mile. For runners, the accumulated force would be even greater—the reason, Rutlin says, why some avid joggers have been switching to pole walking to save the cartilage in their knees.

“What most walkers are out there for is to improve their cardiovascular fitness and to keep their weight under control,” Rutlin says. “But there is also another issue. Because you are actually bearing some of your weight with your upper body using walking poles, the skeletal system in your body is positively affected. I’ve had people who were diagnosed with osteoporosis and used the poles for a number of years who either maintain their bone density or, in a couple of cases, actually have reversed the diagnosis and gone to what is usually called osteopenia, which is a precursor of osteoporosis.” Rutlin points to his mother, who is 78 and has been pole striding for 12 years. “She has gained seven percent bone density from the age of 70 to age 78,” he says.

The University of Wisconsin Hospitals have offered fitness pole walking in cardiac and other rehabilitation programs for the past seven years.

“The main advantage of fitness pole walking is that it offers less perceived exertion,” says Jude Sullivan, a U of W clinical exercise physiologist. “In other words, patients who may be fearful of overexertion, who would normally walk at 3.0 mph, can walk at, say, 3.4 mph with walking poles without feeling any difference in their exertion level.”

Researchers at the Edward Hines, Jr., VA Hospital near Chicago found that patients with peripheral vasculitis and intermittent claudication could walk longer with less discomfort using the poles. A study showed similar results for Parkinson’s disease patients, and the hospital now is studying poles for patients with diabetic neuropathy, a loss of nerve function in the feet and legs.

Rutlin often hears from fitness pole users who have severe walking disabilities. “I’ve had letters and calls from people with MS, arthritis, diabetes, balance problems, even partial foot amputation,” he says. “One multiple sclerosis patient wrote, saying, ‘I have not been able to walk this well for . . . well, I can’t even remember when I could walk this well.’ ”

One other benefit pole walkers get from the activity has nothing to do with walking or exercise; it’s the curious attention that pole walking usually attracts. “Martha Anderson, a woman from Oak Park, Illinois, just wanted to lose some weight,” Rutlin says. “She lost 32 pounds, and she says the second best thing about the poles was all the men she meets when she uses them. She’s slim and trim now, and the poles give men a reason to stop and ask her about them.”

As for learning how to actually maneuver with fitness poles, it may take a little practice, especially for those who never have skiied cross-country. Rutlin recommends watching the video that comes with the poles rather than just reading the instruction booklet.

“Before people start using the poles, I have them walk first and move their left arm with their right leg and so on to get the idea,” he says. “You can do some pretty strange things if you think about it too much,” he adds. “On the other hand, if you just do it, it’s pretty natural.”
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