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Sick of running? Pole walking can be an adventurous alternative

If using something like ski poles to force awareness of your core and posture sounds appealing, then Nordic pole walking is for you. Think cross-country skiing without the skis.

Jenn, Leanne, my mom and I joined Barb Gormley's Urban Poling Nordic Walking Class in High Park, a large urban oasis in Toronto. Jenn and Leanne, both 35, are gym rats and runners. Both seemed perfect "testers" of the website's promise of pole walking as a "running alternative," especially because Leanne is currently injured and searching for a safe stop-gap way to get in some cardio. My mom, who is 64, fell right into in the typical demographic for pole walking.

The promise

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Urban poling promises the world, including whittling your waist, saving your joints, burning up to 46 per cent more calories than standard walking, sculpting arms and shoulders, improving posture and decreasing stress, all while being social, fun and appropriate for everyone.

What to expect

My happy foursome joined roughly 15 women in a parking lot at 9 a.m. on a Sunday. Initially, we bonded over the critical subjects of (what else?) clothing and the chilly weather.

Next, Barb explained set-up and form. Co-ordinating opposite pole and leg timing (e.g., making the non-dominant arm keep pace) took a surprising level of effort. A few form tips: "stand tall," "belly button in," "arms long" and "move from shoulders."

Then the adventure began. The class was an hour-plus, up and down hills, trails and stairs. It was beautiful and peaceful. As Leanne stated, "There's no better way to start the day than moving in fresh air." (Full disclosure: My mom and I froze. Everyone else seemed to be toasty warm.)

Barb offered helpful feedback throughout, challenging each of us, when appropriate, to speed up. Faster people charged ahead and looped back. Periodically, we stopped for conditioning exercises such as lunges and squats .

We felt very welcome; the gang even invited us to join their postwalk tea.

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The verdict

This was an urban fitness adventure, one that I think is excellent for those seeking social connection, nature, improved body awareness and posture or a lower-impact cardiovascular workout.

For me, though, it was a one-time adventure; I will stick to running, at least for the foreseeable future.

For my fitness buddies (Jenn especially), it's possibly a new weekly workout.

A major benefit for Jenn: "It has form and the mind/body connection at its core, pun intended." I appreciate the concentration on form and posture. It constantly amazes me that "form" is far from the automatic cornerstone of all fitness activities.

Awareness of form is always key. Most of us sit excessively and typically slouch. The aid of the poles is useful for anyone with poor balance or osteoporosis. When living with osteoporosis, posture is critical; demineralization within the spine contributes to stooped posture.

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To improve posture, most trainers advocate exercises where the body "stands tall" – typically upper back and core work. The conundrum is that no matter how many strength exercises one does, with poor balance and proprioception (mind/body connection), you will always have to look down to orient yourself, perpetuating improper posture. Looking down is not ideal for any of us, but especially not for those with osteoporosis.

The poles allow one to stand tall and thus safely improve balance, proprioception and posture.

Almost anyone can enjoy pole walking. Pace and terrain can be adjusted; power walk on uneven terrain or make the "terrain" your living room and pace inside. It is perfect for those with osteoarthritis, those managing injuries and anyone who wants that full-body cardio "feel" with minimal impact.

The biggest potential negative, to quote Leanne, is as with all outside activity, it is "extremely weather dependent." My mom pointed out a connected negative: "The demographic seems to be mainly older woman, but as one gets older, it becomes more dangerous to be out in the cold if you're not warmed up. You are more likely to be stiff." The solution? Don't stand around beforehand, warm up, match outfits to the weather and terrain and go at your own pace.

Want the positives of pole walking, but not the class? Buy poles and adventure solo. Just note that Barb said (only half-jokingly) one can always identify self-teachers by their form – or lack thereof. Possible compromise? A lesson, then solo walking.

But is pole walking right for you? If you're like my mom, go, but dress warmer. If you're injured like Leanne, go until healed. Me? I am going for a run.

Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.

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