Nordic Walking for fitness coming to clubs near you

No, no, this isn't some odd variant of snowshoeing or skiing, but actually fitness walking with poles. Or, said the other way around, a bit like cross-country skiing without skis.

No, no, this isn’t some odd variant of snowshoeing or skiing, but actually fitness walking with poles. Or, said the other way around, a bit like cross-country skiing without skis.

Already booming across Europe since its birth in Finland in 1997, several pole manufacturers are looking to tap into the fitness movement and walking market in the United States, with a large rollout by the Exel company slated for spring 2004 to involve health clubs, instructors and trainers, fitness retailers, and others in the industry.

“We’d like to get the fitness clubs who are on the edge and want the next new thing, and we want the retailer who understands what Nordic Walking is,” said Tracy Ferland, product and marketing manager for Karhu, the ski company that is now licensed by Exel of Finland to start the ball rolling here.

First up is establishing a trainer network, teaching instructors what it is and how to teach it, then comes relationships with clubs and stores. Next up come community-wide events, with five tentatively scheduled between late February and May in Miami, Boston, New York, Chicago and a West Coast city such as Los Angeles. All involved, from trainers to clubs to retailers, will hopefully be woven together within one region to help each other teach, supply product and promote the activity.

In the six years since it was birthed in Finland by Exel, an astounding 10 percent of the population of 5.2 million participates at least once a week. The company also has trainers in 24 other countries, including Japan, Italy and Croatia. And millions across the world are poling around their streets and parks as a part of their fitness program.

But can the U.S. market get over what even Ferland calls “the dork factor?” The company’s Finland-based International Sales Manager Chris Griffin told SNEWS it doesn’t take long for someone to drop the feeling they look like goofs once they feel good doing it, especially if they are in a group at health clubs or community events.

Exel isn’t the only company getting into the Nordic Walking game. Germany-based pole maker Leki had to scramble to hurry up its pole manufacturing to get them into a few retailers this fall and is planning events and strategy. Swix also is bringing poles out. But Exel is the company that is counting on participation from the fitness industry and its clubs and trainers, as well as the one planning to provide broad-based training and events.

“The possibility is certainly there that it can have the same kind of popularity as in Europe,” Griffin said. “It will take some time though since the United States is a massive country, and every state is like its own separate country.”

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SNEWS View: This is an emerging trend that SNEWS has been watching from afar as it exploded across Europe. As far as we can tell, we were even the first U.S.-based media outlet to acknowledge its existence (our first story was in July 2002). Heck, we even tried it ourselves back in about 1990 when it didn’t have a fancy name and was just pole walking — a cross-training activity used by skiers in the off-season and hikers all year-round. Once again, we think this is an activity the industry (actually both fitness AND outdoor) should embrace since it’s one more option that could give some folks an entrée into some kind of regular fitness participation. The more avenues, the merrier, we say. We actually think that some people who find they feel silly fitness walking will take to this since they now get to hold onto something. And clubs can offer group walks, weekend hikes, and keep a stock of loaner poles to use for these activities, perhaps even partnering with local retailers who sell the goods needed when someone decides they want to step up to the plate and get their own gear. Look for more in-depth analysis and news from us on this trend in our 2004 GearTrends magazines — both Outdoor and Fitness.