Sher Monfore was so hobbled by back pain that she retired early from her career as a nurse. During a visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, she came across a woman who was demonstrating Nordic walking and insisted that Monfore join the group.
"As I was saying, 'No, no,' she put the straps around my wrists and told me the poles would support my back. The group started going and I was chugging along behind," Monfore recalled. "I didn't walk fast but I walked an hour. An hour! Right after that, I bought my own poles and I've never put them down."
That was eight years ago. Since then, Monfore has become a bit of an evangelist for this way of walking. A certified Nordic walking instructor, she's started two year-round Nordic walking groups through the Maple Grove Community Center and been named the city's Nordic walking coordinator.
"Using poles increases the exertion of your walk by 40 percent, no matter if you go fast or slow. It doesn't take any more energy or effort, but you get so many benefits," she enthused. "It makes your posture better, it's easy on the joints, cardiologists love what it does for your heart."
Walking is already the most popular form of aerobic exercise in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with 145 million Americans saying they walk regularly. Those numbers have likely spiked since the pandemic shuttered gyms and sent the cautious outdoors to exercise.
This fall, the YMCA of the North saw "a huge" increase in the number of members calling on personal trainers to learn the Nordic technique and custom-fit their poles, said Jennifer Menk, director of health and well-being.
"Nordic walking is a full-body workout," she said. "Adding poles engages the core and upper-body muscles and burns more calories."
With its loping, arm-swinging, pole-pushing stride, Nordic walking is like walking on steroids, its adherents say.
Menk, a corrective exercise specialist, said it's also the perfect exercise for those facing fitness challenges.
"The extra stability from the poles makes them ideal for people who have joint issues, knee or hip replacements, anything with the spine," she said. "People with Parkinson's or MS or someone who had a stroke can do this for rehab, building strength and balance. It's a super-safe form of exercise."
It's also relatively cheap to get into, requiring only poles that retail for between $70 and $200 and a good pair of walking shoes or boots with treaded soles. While newbies are encouraged to take a class to learn the technique, YouTube videos offer instructions to guide beginners to correctly use their "sticks."
Tony Mikols took up Nordic walking after taking a class at the Y eight years ago. Looking to boost his workout, the Elk River retiree took a daily 45-minute walk.
"I lost 16 pounds, a pound a month, and I didn't change anything else, so I attribute it to the pole walking," he said. "It's really good exercise."
A Finnish start
While Nordic walking is gaining ground in the Twin Cities, it's far more common in Europe. Cross-country skiers in Finland began using poles to train in the offseason back in the 1960s. An estimated 12 million Europeans are now Nordic walkers.
The Helsinki-based International Nordic Walking Federation (inwa-nordicwalking.com) has studied those walkers, accumulating research that shows health benefits of the activity for those with arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and other conditions.
Tom Rutlin began promoting pole walking 33 years ago. A runner and former cross-country ski instructor in Madison, Wis., Rutlin began Nordic walking after an injury kept him from taking his daily jog.
"I'd been running 50 to 60 miles a week and was down to 20 miles with poles, but I gained muscle mass and my waist measurement went down to what it was in high school," he said. "I thought, 'Other people could benefit from this.' It became my mission and my business."
Rutlin founded Exerstrider to sell high-quality poles online and in specialty sporting goods stores. This year has been one of the company's busiest.
"We didn't know how the pandemic would affect business, but it has been a boon. Turns out this is a perfect solution for people who want to walk all winter," he said. "It's always been my vision to see parks being filled with walkers with poles. Maybe this will finally happen."
Linda Lemke likely holds the crown for introducing the most Minnesotans to Nordic walking.
Billing herself as the "Nordic walking queen," Lemke estimates she's taught the technique to at least 3,000 people. And that's only since 2005, when Nordic poles first arrived at Hoigaard's, where she worked.
Lemke, who has a degree in therapeutic recreation, became certified as an instructor and began leading walks for the St. Louis Park sporting goods store. She went on to teach the technique at community education classes, lunch-and-learns and corporate wellness presentations. She also established several local walking groups, which she continues to lead.
Lemke, 68, finds Nordic walking is good for the head as well as the body.
"When you get outside and get your body going in rhythm, it gets your attitude right. You settle into this moving meditation that's so soothing. It gives you a break from all the things going on in your head," she said.
But she stresses the need for using appropriate equipment. Lemke shudders at the idea of grabbing your ski or trekking poles.
"You wouldn't use a badminton racquet to play tennis; it's not designed for that activity and it won't be the same experience," she said. "For walking, you want an adjustable pole with a safe lockout mechanism made of quality aluminum that won't bend or break. It has a special hand strap and the rubber tip that's angled at the bottom to handle repetitive action on a hard surface."
Nordic walking can be a solo activity, but it also can be enjoyed in small groups that practice social distancing.
"Now we walk single file instead of side by side," said Monfore. "Unless it's icy, we dress in layers and get out there. It's just so much fun and when you're done, you feel so good."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.