In an earlier blog I described my experiences in Germany learning about Nordic Walking, in which you walk briskly using special walking sticks similar to cross-country ski poles. Among the advantages: burning more calories, getting an upper-body workout, taking stress off creaky hips and knees. But while many walkers in Hannover have since added the activity to their fitness repertoire, I’ve not seen another Nordic Walker in all the months since I brought my poles home to Beantown. The sport just hasn’t caught on – at least not in my walking territory, the various parks and walks around Jamaica Plain. So I’m going to report on my experiences with Nordic Walking here – maybe it will inspire a sister or fellow walker to try it.
First, I have to tell you about my special motivating trick. I never leave home without my mini-iPod, loaded up with an hour’s worth of rousing marches played by Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble. No matter how lazy, grumpy or tired I feel, once the strains of “Stars and Stripes Forever” or “Alte Kameraden” or Sousa’s “Bullets and Bayonets” flow through my earphones I’m off and marching to beat the band (so to speak). My mood lifts, my eyes sparkle, my breath quickens and my arms and legs move of their own accord.
At first I considered my joy at marching a kind of guilty pleasure, thinking of all those poor recruits drilled to obey or sent into battle using such rhythmic manipulation. I felt (or imagined?) the disapproval of my peace-loving daughters when they declined my offer to let them try my bracing marches for their walks. (I also quickly abandoned the idea of calling my special brand of fitness activity “Nordic Marching” – that somehow seemed possibly reminiscent of the Hitler Youth on parade.) But I no longer feel guilty about my march music and the rush it gives me; it’s simply too wonderful.
Nor do I allow myself to feel embarrassed by the stares my poles sometimes garner, especially when I walk in more upscale areas (around Jamaica Pond, for instance, or in Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum), where fashionably clad yuppies and lithe young singles jog past, intent on completing their fitness routine, but still giving me a startled look as I puff along. So I can understand that my daughters have declined to try not only the march music, but also the poles. As Kate told me, “I think they’re great for you, Mom….” She didn’t need to complete the thought aloud: “but I wouldn’t be caught dead with them.” Nonetheless, I've had some interesting exchanges while walking, especially in my favorite exercise grounds, Franklin Park.
Franklin Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park fame, is huge, boasting a picnic area, athletic fields, a golf course, zoo, sports stadium, and a wooded area called “The Wilderness.” On the border between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, the Park is used by school teams for cross-country practice and athletic meets, by local cricket and softball teams, by countless neighborhood dog-walkers, and for theatrical and musical events as well as local festivals (e.g. the Puerto Rican and Dominican celebrations, Juneteenth and the Boston Kite Festival). It is also frequented, of course, by joggers and walkers like myself, many of whom appear curious about my strange mode of getting around.
In contrast to the embarrassed avoidance or shocked stares I sometimes encounter in other parks, the reactions of those I encounter in Franklin Park – most often from people of color – tend to be expressed verbally. Today, for example, I passed a woman in the parking lot sitting in her car, her door open to let in some air. “What are those?” she asked, pointing at my sticks. Pulling out my earphones, I explained why I used them. “Oh, I've never seen those before. Where do you go to church? I’d like to invite you to my church.” I didn’t quite catch the connection, but was grateful nonetheless for her friendly impulse and told her that I used to sing in my church choir years ago. She seemed pleased, and I marched on.
I’ve had numerous amused comments of the ilk: “Can’t you wait for the snow?” Or: “Where are your skis?” But a number of people have responded to my proselytizing regarding the benefits of walking poles by saying they plan to look for some themselves: “I’m gonna get me some of those.” Moreover, my athletic prowess has been openly acknowledged, as in: “You’ve got quite a fast pace going there!” Or: “You’re marching just like a soldier!” One woman whom I meet regularly as she walks her dog called out after she’d seen me exerting myself for several weeks: “It’s working!” I guess she assumed I was walking to lose weight (which was true in part) and wanted to encourage me (which she did).
But lest I grow overly confident of the impression I think I make as a strong and youthful-appearing sportswoman, I am guaranteed to be brought back to earth soon enough. My sticks, after all, don’t only give me that upper-body workout, they also support my aging hips and knees, and some may understandably view them more as canes. As did perhaps one younger woman, who smiled sympathetically as I poled past and said soothingly (as one does when hearing that someone’s mother has reached the age of 94), “Why, bless your heart!” I smiled back and marched gamely on, trying to remember that you’re only as old as you feel.
As you can see, Nordic Walking has numerous benefits, not least among them the chance to increase your social visibility and – under the right circumstances – expand your horizon of human contact. So, why not get out there!
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