We’ve been saturated these last weeks with television images of sweating beach volleyballers, quivering gymnasts and sleek divers with more or less splash, not to mention the flying, crashing BMX bikers, newly added to the Olympics this year. Media coverage (at least that of NBC) has often focused on the personal stories behind the athletes’ feats, and we frequently hear how inspiring it is that such and such a race swimmer is competing again, although she’s already 41. Or a diver is trying one last time for gold, even at age 30, against those half her age.
Such stories are indeed stirring; but what about those of us who are still trying, even at age 60+, to shake off our stiffness and get out there each day to help maintain our—and elder society’s—fitness? In the spirit of recognizing our own gritty determination and unflagging optimism, I propose supporting seniors’ continuing athletic development by adding an international, age-appropriate sport to the Olympic roster: Nordic Walking. This is an activity that can be performed by young and old regardless of fitness level, and offers both physical and spiritual benefits. Here’s the backstory of my enthusiasm.
Nordic Walking I: Hannover, Germany
We first heard of Nordic Walking from a German friend of Luise’s. After trying this new sport for just a few weeks, she reported enthusiastically, the pounds just rolled off! That promise awakened our interest, and following her standard practice, Luise found us books and a video on the subject at the local library. We soon learned that Nordic Walking was being hailed throughout Germany as the near-perfect exercise: thanks to special flexible, rubber-tipped walking sticks or poles which would practically propel you forward along pavement or path, you could achieve both intense aerobic exercise and a vigorous upper-body workout, along with the hoped-for weight-loss. The video and books provided many illustrations and instructions on how to hold and manipulate the poles correctly, coordinate arms and legs, and even do complicated leaps and twists. They did not explain, however, why the English term “Nordic Walking” had been chosen for this popular German activity. (I subsequently found out that the special poles for “ski-walking” were developed in Finland and named after “Nordic” or cross-country skiing; for years, apparently, Nordic skiers have been walking with poles during the off-season to keep up their conditioning.)
After viewing the attractive video and studying the books with their photographs of beaming walkers, we decided to invest and headed to Bergsport Zentrale, a hiking and mountaineering boutique about 10 minutes away along the Lister Meile, our pedestrian-friendly outdoor shopping and café mall. The athletic-looking young salesman patiently showed us a variety of poles, ranging in price from 60 to 120 euros – a larger investment than we had planned. But we were determined to give this new exercise a try, and selected one pair of low-end poles that seemed the right height for both of us. If we liked them we could always buy a second or even fancier pair. On the way home we took turns whipping through the late-afternoon crowds of startled pedestrians as though we were on springs.
The next day we took the new Nordic Walking poles to the Eilenriede, our neighborhood forest-park, to begin our conditioning (and the accompanying weight-loss) in earnest. For the first time we noticed other Nordic Walkers in the park, briskly poling along the paths in colorful sleek outfits. With one pair of poles between us and wearing our baggy bermuda shorts, we were somewhat outclassed, but we tried to imitate the smart walkers with as much poise and coordination as we could muster, taking turns with the poles or holding one pole per walker. After all, we’ve long since become immune to the disapproving glares we sometimes receive from more conservatively dressed townsfolk when we venture onto the streets of Hanover in our casual (read: sloppy) American garb. (Luise has gratefully adopted the relaxed style of my native land.)
On the way home we stopped at Aldi’s to pick up some Wurst and Brot for lunch; as usual, we also cruised the bins of clothing and miscellaneous items. Depending on the day, the famous discount grocery store also offers bargains in virtually everything from bicycles to televisions—three years ago Luise brought home a fabulous knockoff Tempurpedic mattress for less than a tenth the cost of the original. Imagine our amazement when, in a bin of men’s and women’s exercise shorts, we discovered packaged adjustable Nordic Walking poles at 10 Euros a pair! Now nothing could hold us back.
The following day we set out again, this time both of us suitably equipped with genuine (though disparately priced) Nordic Walking poles. Though more strenuous than our usual stroll, Nordic Walking was indeed energizing. Ignoring the amused glances or raised eyebrows of poleless passersby, we had made it all the way to the duck pond, the halfway point in our usual walking routine, when we noticed a troop of several women and one man, all with walking poles, standing in a line receiving instruction in the art of Nordic Walking. The teacher-coach had them practice holding, lifting, then swinging the poles from front to back and side to side; finally they stepped along the path one after the other, dragging the poles on the ground behind them. While it occurred to me that formal instruction for such an obvious activity might be just another bit of trendy hype, along with the glossy clothing and élite poles, Luise’s friend had in fact sung the praises of just such a course; she claimed it was necessary in order to master the proper technique and prevent incorrect movements. Books and video explanations were simply not enough. After seeing the group in the park, Luise, already skeptical about whether we were handling the poles correctly, decided to wait to take a class in Nordic Walking herself before perhaps developing incorrect habits. And although she seldom uses her poles, she does now walk in MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) shoes, which also provide muscle strengthening and are guaranteed, like Nordic Walking, to burn extra calories – with only minimal instruction.
Given my perhaps reckless American pioneering spirit, I vowed to press on without further instruction and continue walking nordicly, even at the risk of error or unorthodox movements. Over the next few weeks I strode ever more confidently through the Eilendriede and soon whished past a cautious new class of jittery beginners with a sense of quiet pride and accomplishment. I loved the feeling of being boosted forward by my gradually strengthening arm muscles – almost as if I had wheels on my feet – and for the first time in years could actually jog for long stretches without pain to hips, knees or ankles. When it was time to return to Boston, I collapsed the Aldi-poles and packed them alongside my remaining stores of Metamucil and flax-seed oil, for I intended to introduce this wonderful sport to my American friends and family. Their reactions, and my further Nordic adventures in the New World will be documented in an upcoming blog.
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