Where's the snow?

At some point, fairly early on, I stop feeling incredibly silly and actually start to enjoy Nordic walking. It might be because we are on Hampstead Heath, which is a perfectly pleasant place to spend an hour, but it is more likely the case that my instructor, Martin Christie, director of Nordic Walking UK, has just told me I am burning up to 45% more calories than I would from just strolling as normal. Even better, except for my tingling triceps, it doesn't feel that strenuous. Hell, I have not even broken out in a sweat. This is my kind of exercise. We can even chat as we stride along with our funny poles.

Nordic walking is, basically, walking with very light, special sticks like ski poles, which are strapped to your wrist. You use them not like a walking stick, but to push behind you, spurring you on. The activity was developed in the 1930s in Finland as summer training for cross-country skiers but was not taken seriously as a fitness workout until 1997. Since then, its popularity across Europe has exploded. In Finland, more than 15% of the adult population do it regularly, and 2.5 million Germans have been reeled in since it launched in Germany four years ago. It is taking off in America, Australia and Japan. Reebok is thought to be scouting for its first "face of Nordic walking", although celebrities have been slow to embrace it (Rachel Hunter and Coleen McLoughlin are the only famous fans Christie can think of), probably because it just isn't that sexy.

Nordic walking arrived here in 2004, but it seems this will be the year it takes off. Nordic Walking UK, which trains instructors and promotes the sport, will be running a series of workshops across the country this winter, and 2,500 are expected to attend. You can also go on Nordic walking holidays in the UK and in Europe.

Its appeal is obvious. Not only is it easy, but Nordic walking is also, apparently, the most complete body workout there is, using more muscles than running or swimming. Christie says doing it for half an hour a day, five days a week would be ideal. It strengthens your back, shoulders, arms and chest and, because it allows you to walk faster, your lower body muscles, too. It increases the heart rate and using the extra muscles eats up the calories (up to 400 calories an hour; walking burns just 230). If you are lazy like me and avoid gyms in the same way you avoid crossing motorways, it is the perfect exercise because it does not feel like hard work. Those who need to experience pain to feel they are getting a workout can up the pace: advanced Nordic walkers can run, skip or jump with their poles, or use them to do push- or pull-ups.

Christie straps the poles snugly on to my wrists (it might give bondage fetishists a little rush, but I feel like an old lady hunched over two walking sticks). Then we start strolling. Here is the only tricky bit: coordination. As your left foot moves forward, you swing your right arm forward before planting the pole behind you again, and vice versa. It takes concentration, but Christie says I have picked it up quickly, so I feel quite smug.

Getting the technique right means you can feel exertion in the backs of your arms and shoulders. We pick up speed. This is easy, I think (when I stop using the poles for a moment, it feels much harder to walk at that speed). We charge up a hill, we charge down. I use the sticks to beat at stinging nettles and poke interesting things. People give us funny looks but nobody says anything.

"You still get comments like, 'Where's the snow?' or 'You forgot your skis', but it is getting better," says Christie. "I remember leaving the house one afternoon and doing Nordic walking on the street and realising with horror as I walked past a secondary school that it was home time. I got a lot of shouts then."

Health insurance firms in Switzerland offer discounts to people who do Nordic walking, and in Germany, the government pays for it to rehabilitate hospital patients, and health insurers subsidise courses - the aim is to prevent back problems, heart disease and obesity. In this country, mental health trusts are starting to use it to help people with mental illness and Alzheimer's disease. Not only is the exercise beneficial, but the need to coordinate your arms and legs helps the brain, too.

Nordic walking is also reckoned to strengthen bones, reduce back pain, and alleviate neck and shoulder tension. Using the straps on the poles strengthens the wrists and can reduce the symptoms of repetitive strain injury. Because, unlike jogging, it reduces pressure on the knees, you can do it safely if you're elderly or overweight. It's great to be striding across parks or forests, but you can also do it on city streets, beaches - virtually anywhere you like.

"The other good thing is that it's sociable and you can exercise with people of all fitness levels," says Christie. "If one person is fitter than the other, they can still walk at the same speed but the fitter person can put more upper body effort into it to intensify the workout."

So, is it too good to be true? On the basis of my one outing, apparently not. The only obstacle I can see is that the poles are quite expensive (the best ones, by Finnish makers Exel, start at £70, although there are cheaper ones), and there's no getting away from it - you do feel self-conscious.

"That will change if more people get out there and do it," says Christie. An increase in the number of classes means you don't have to do it on your own. I thoroughly enjoyed charging over the heath, and afterwards I felt happy and hungry, but not exhausted. The next day, my legs and shoulders were aching, so it must work. It is the only exercise I have done that I would not dread doing regularly - and if you do decide to laugh at me, well, I'm the one wielding two sticks.

· For more information on Nordic walking and to find classes, visit www.nordicwalking.co.uk or call 020-8878 8108.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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