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Fitness Pole Walking is not for the faint of heart

By Sam Morishima

 7/10/2011

I was about to end my fitness pole walking clinic with a group of senior citizens aging from 62 to 89 when one of them raised their hand and asked "how do you defend yourself with them"?  The question first took me by surprise coming from this sweet mild manner spoken elderly woman as I gazed into her blue eyes.  She was serious as she began to repeat her question to me.  I looked around and every one of my students had their face turned at me expecting words of martial art's wisdom to come fluently spewing from my mouth of their former fitness pole walking instructor now turned into in their vision into some battle harden masterful Jedi sensei. 

Clearing my throat I told her, "good question" and I proceeded to break down the answer into two categories of attacks: one from vicious animals mainly unruly dogs and the other category of the two legged kind.  But more on the details later.  First let me explain how I got here in the first place.

I am a believer that we can accelerate our fitness as well as our physical skills at any age.  There are certain gems of activities that help us develop skills and fitness in the most efficient, less strenuous and harmful way, that is very enjoyable to do in both a practical and convenient practice and provides instant growth gratification in progress at each step of improvement.  Therefore, I teach skiing and snowboarding using an indoor endless slope, I work with retired seniors on roller skating establishing fundamental dynamic body alignment and positioning that allow for rapid balance reflex to enhance safety, I teach beginners how to position and get up on a surfboard on an indoor simulator that develops optimal lateral balance a key foundation to surfing, work with students to discover and implement dynamic body alignment and body leverage for riding balance using innovative aids such as e3, and relative to this article maximize one's walking  fitness with the uses of fitness walking poles.  But what I find very interesting these days is that what I find to be the most obvious and easiest way to gain fitness by walking with two poles has not caught on in this very health conscious USA as it has in Europe. 

So a bit about fitness pole walking and how this has lead to using poles for defense with a 100 lb elderly lady with rheumatoid arthritis wanting to take down a 200 lb attacker.  Walking is one of the most effective and simplest form of aerobic exercises.  Aerobic exercise being a low intensity and long duration exercise that depends primarily on the aerobic energy system to convert carbohydrates into energy in the muscles (also includes fat conversion to glucose to energy through the aerobic pathway).  Typical aerobic exercises are walking, running, swimming, dancing, skiing, snowboarding, etc.... and one of the best is fitness pole walking.

The benefits of aerobic exercise are many and the bottom line is improved quality of life.  Here are some specifics:

  • Strengthening and conditioning muscles of breathing improving lung capacity and air flow.

  • Strengthening the heart muscle pumping efficiency reducing the resting heart rate.

  • Improved blood circulation and reduction in blood pressure

  • Increasing red blood cell numbers and oxygen transport facilitation throughout the body

  • shown to reduce cardiovascular problems

  • Reducing the risk of diabetes

  • Stimulate bone growth reducing osteoporosis risk

  • Strengthening various muscle groups in the body as well as enhances vascularization in the muscles.

  • Improve endurance by improved energy storage and increase speed of aerobic metabolism in muscles

  • Improve mental health and reducing stress

If you are going to walk, it makes great sense to maximize that walk with a fitness pole walk.   By using the poles on your walk you can turn a 100 calorie 1 mile walk into a 140 calorie burning walk. Not only are you getting walking benefits but your walking with a more energetic heart beat rate that can be 5 to 17 beats per minute faster moving toward a more optimized target heart rate that allows for greater development of the cardiovascular and circulatory system. Another key benefit is reduction of impact on joints having the poles and upper body absorbing up to 26 %. You involve your upper body muscles when you walk with poles building the shoulders, back & chest muscles, the arms and hands for a more total body work out. This really makes a 30 minute walk with poles equal to 50 minutes of walking without poles. The nice thing is your doing more exercise but you feel as though your working less because of the   reduction of load on the back, spine and lower body.

The poles keeps you in a balanced up-right position with shoulders back improving your breathing posture.  With a better walking posture you can perform a more proper breathing pattern.  Such as breathing in through your nose and release the breath out your mouth.  Also a 3:2 inhale-to exhale ratio allows for a smooth full inhale and full exhale pattern minimizing hyperventilation.  Such a breathing would be inhale on the left & right & left foot strike and exhale fully on the right & left foot strike.

People in Europe of all ages enjoy walking with two poles for three reasons; the health benefits, the ease that it makes for walking and how it improves their walking experience.  What many Europeans say is that the poles allows proper head posture to be upright permitting a relaxed viewing of the surrounding.  The walker is therefore more alert and attentive, being more aware as they walk.

  In the USA the facts about walking with poles is not very well known and its use is still in its infancy.  It is typically reserved for seniors for balance issues, for people with health issues from overweight to diabetics to osteoporosis, cardiovascular, where many physicians will recommend benefit of aerobic exercise.  So right there people think pole walking is either for people with illness issues or skiers who can't let go of their ski poles. 

Many people I meet during my pole walks think I am training for skiing and if I mention they should try i, their reply is that pole walking is for the elderly who are unsteady or for those with an injury or disabilities.  It is true that walking with poles can improve stability especially with proper use in technique having the opposite leg and arm pole placement with each step aiding their walk.  As with the seniors in my class mentioned above.  The pole walking helped make a significantly improvement in their walking balance but more important it provided them with a strong stance posture to propel themselves forward in a gliding movement.  They felt confidence of their balance and stability in their walking. So much so that early morning and evening walks became a priority especially in the summer when the day is hot but the mornings and cool evening breezes made a stroll ideal.  Thoughts of possible dogs running wild or assaults while on walking trails at these times are things not far from their minds.  I can not say what may lurk in the mind of a would be attacker but if they came upon a person walking with two pointy sharp carbide pole tips I would imagine an attacker would be thinking twice about not being skewered.  

 Now lets move away from attackers on the trail and get back to the misconception of fitness pole walking by the general public. Pole walking is a critical and mandatory workout for cross -country ski athletes.  It is about skills, conditioning, endurance, strength and strategy.  Pole walking is also incorporated into the Finnish Army basic training program.  So the idea that many here in the USA feel about walking with poles is only for the elderly, the ill and disabled is real and prevents many from attaining the benefits that fitness pole walking can provide for them.

Other reasons why people who like to walk but insist they don't want to try walking with poles feel poles are clumsy and restrictive believing working with poles are burdensome and awkward.  My discussions with many of these people is that they do not believe in the benefits and do not want to work on or develop the technique and skills to use the poles properly in a fluent and coordinated manner. 

The sad thing for some of these people is they realize the benefits of fitness pole walking after a problem occurs.  I firmly believe that fitness pole walking can alleviate and may even prevent future walking problems from occurring.   The problem is that most people do not walk aligned or efficiently with poor gait, feet, knee, hip, back, shoulders, neck issues that worsen over  time.  Walking with poles can better position the walker in a more proper walking manner minimizing or correcting the impact from improper walking or gait. Many of the seniors I work with mention if they had started pole walking earlier they would not have the issues they currently have with various pains and imbalance.

Walking with poles do require technique and proper handling. Like any physical activity, pole walking will take practice to develop proper coordination.  With practice walking will be more aligned, better posture, overall better strength and a greater degree of the benefits of walking.  What I have gathered from those who overcome their mental obstacles to do pole walking,  is they find it so much fun to learn and once acquiring the skills to smoothly and effortlessly glide in their walk that is when they reach the "AH HA" moment.    It is a moment of realization and discovery that they are skillfully accelerating in their fitness and knowledge of proper walking.   It is amazing that many young potential people feel that walking with poles are burdensome and clumsy and the techniques odd yet Seniors are able to figure it out and walk with poles.  For the Seniors in my class the poles are not just for fitness walking but are also an aid for walking with an added self defense use.   "The Force must be strong with the Seniors?"

Using poles in fitness walking is an advantage at any age.  I would love to have everyone know about the advantages of walking with poles so they can make an informed decision about either using or not using them for themselves. 

I walk on a very popular path that circumferences a park. There are always runners, joggers and walkers of every age even infants in strollers with moms and dads propelling them around at almost all hours of the day.  I see people of all sizes and shapes with music players or water bottles or hand weights being carried.  From fancy running gear to combat boots.  I see people who walk and run with various gait and feet positions, with every type of hand placements, different head and shoulder postures, various foot strikes, varying lengths of strides and cadences, body twists or no twists, straight or angled upper bodies, arm swings or not at all or arm swings that are wide or tight to the body frame, balanced body symmetry to various symmetry movements, but what I rarely see are walking fitness poles being used. I often wonder what each persons goal(s) is or are for wanting to be there and if using fitness walking poles would help them get their faster in a more easier or more pleasant manner.  The answer I come up with is what ever there need is at least for the walkers the fitness poles would definitely be the answer.  For the joggers and runners I know having an e3 Biogrip in their hand would improve their running, but that is for another article. 

Coming back to the goals of our Senior class of pole walkers wanting a self defense lesson using the poles.  With an attacking animal keeping the poles between the animal and yourself is the vital message. Crossing the poles with the tips lightly on the ground makes a great barrier and acts as a scissor for widening and narrowing the "X" pole fence barrier. From there various moves were practiced using the poles to hold a defensive position.

For a lager attacker various pole hand holding positions that allowed for defensive posturing and offensive strikes were demonstrated.  The key was to do something that provides an advantage position for the walker and throws off the attacker.  It was all that was needed to calm and satisfy this group of determined pole walkers.  So if you come across a pole walker on one of your runs or walk be sure to give them wide berth otherwise you may end up on the wrong end of the pole.

SnoZone Endless Slope instruct classes in skiing, snowboarding, pole walking, e3 and surfing. Look us up at www.endlesslope.com and walk this way.

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