The Finns have a word for it. Sauvakävely, literally "pole walking," isn't a circus act – though, like speed walking, it can be something of a spectacle to behold. It's also an emerging option for anyone looking for a low-impact weekend workout.
Better known as Nordic walking, the practice of taking a hike with what amounts to a pair of modified ski poles was developed in Finland more than 70 years ago by cross-country skiers poking around for off-season exercise.
It caught on there as a sport of its own in the late 1990s, then jumped to Germany and Austria. In 2000 those were the only three member countries in the International Nordic Walking Association (INWA), in Vantaa, Finland. The INWA now has 16 member countries and instructors in about 40. Some 6 million people worldwide participate.
"If you go for a walk in a lot of European countries now, you get a silly look if you don't have your poles," says Pete Edwards, founder of skiwalking.com in Glen Arbor, Mich. "Millions of folks here will be walking with poles soon."
Nordic walking took hold in Colorado and Vermont around 2004. Proponents say this might be the summer in which a US walker of any age or fitness level will stalk through a neighborhood park, poles swinging, without being mistaken for a winter-sports diehard who failed to notice the thaw.
"Each year more people in my classes know what it is," says Malin Svensson. Born in Sweden, Ms. Svensson was the first Nordic walker granted master-trainer status in Finland. She has taught an alternative-fitness course at UCLA since 2002 and heads the sport's promotional organization, Nordic Walking USA, in Santa Monica, Calif.
Nordic walking's big advantage: It works several muscle groups. "Push back and down on those poles," Svensson says, "and basically your whole upper body is engaged."
Walking with poles, which are kept angled back diagonally, enhances natural arm swing. Shoulders remain loose. "The poles and your arms absorb 20 to 30 percent of the shock that normally goes to your knees, hips, and back," Mr. Edwards says.
Svensson and others point to a 2002 Cooper Institute study that maintained a Nordic walker could expend 20 to 46 percent more energy than a walker not using poles, depending on technique.
Svensson, who has developed a 10-step technique and written instruction manuals aimed at standardizing training, says that one supervised session is all most walkers need. Short of that, the major pole manufacturers – Exel (exelsports.net), Leki (leki.com), and Swix (swixnordicwalking.us) – offer DVDs for self-starters. A set of midrange poles costs about $100.
The sport's newness in the US creates a need for buyer caution, says Edwards, as retailers get up to speed. It's not always as easy as dropping into the local sporting-goods store.
"You might accidentally be sold snowshoe poles, with no rubber tips, or trekking poles," which are designed for support while climbing, and which are improperly angled for the swinging motion that Nordic walking involves, he says.
Look for poles with carbide tips and removable rubber "asphalt paws" for street use, and for gloveless-finger grips (as opposed to straps) that allow the poles to swing. As a rule, pole length should be about 70 percent of your height, putting the walker's elbow at a 90-degree angle when he or she is standing and holding the grips.
L.L. Bean (llbean.com) introduced an Exel pole in 2004, says Dave Teufel, a spokesman in Freeport, Maine, and added another style to the lineup last year. The company does not disclose unit sales by number, but Mr. Teufel says volume is already up 20 percent this year over last. "Nordic walking is actually the activity featured on our Spring 2006 women's catalogue," he says.
A new wave of active boomer retirees could lift the sport, though Edwards says that he has walked with children and nonagenarians alike.
"I walk every morning before work, 45 minutes," says Silke Schön, a young interior designer who lives in Berlin and has been Nordic walking for three years. "If I have time on the weekends, I'll go for an hour," she writes in an e-mail. "You get sweating, but I have time to prepare for the day mentally and talk it over with my dad, who walks with me.... It's a lot of fun, and it frees the mind."