Alfred strode along Shaftesbury’s streets with the Nordic Walking group and heard how the activity has changed local lives for the better. One group member says she no longer needs an inhaler before she tackles our town’s inclines.
You might have seen Helen Gilchrist lead Nordic walkers as the group strides around Shaftesbury’s slopes. Groups of pole-clutching participants pace around town during two Thursday sessions and a Friday morning exercise. I joined the group just before the weekend and met Helen on the Lower Blandford Road, as we huddled under a beech tree trying to avoid the torrential rain.
As the scheduled 9.30am start time approached, I didn’t expect to see any walkers arrive in the drenching downpours. Helen knew her group better. “They are a great bunch. We have a sense of camaraderie and we don’t let a little thing like the weather put us off,” said Helen, who explained that only one type of condition has cancelled the outings. “Ironically, the snow was the deciding one. I hardly ever cancel but I do if conditions are dangerous.”
I heard voices approaching and keen Nordic walker Angela Wickham waved to acknowledge Helen, before pulling out her Nordic poles and using them like oversized chopsticks to pick up litter outside our Shaftesbury School entrance meeting point. “It is a necessity when you walk past the senior school, unfortunately. The kids leave litter around.” Angela had grabbed a half-drunk can of beer and, peculiarly, a packet of cakes. “I shall walk off the aggravation,” Angela laughed.
Nordic walking has become a popular activity all over the UK and not just in hilly areas like ours. “When I started in 2007, it was new to the UK,” said Helen, before she explained that, as its name suggests, the practice began in Scandinavia. “It was a Finnish invention. It’s based on cross-country skiing and I teach the International Nordic Walking Association technique, which is a ten-step technique. Anybody can get going with a basic first four steps, which usually takes three or four weeks to pick up and then you are away.”
There are subtle differences in how participants approach Nordic walking, depending on which principle they follow. The different camps are not as far apart as they are in sports, such as rugby league and rugby union, for example. “There are a couple of bodies in the UK. There’s British Nordic Walking and Nordic Walking UK,” said Helen. “They have slightly different approaches but, at the end of the day, it is basically the same thing. Nordic walking is using your whole body and once you can do it, whichever way you choose it will be good for you.”
Helen says her walkers take part for a range of reasons. For some of her regulars, social interaction is important. “People who wouldn’t normally meet have made really good friendships and even do other things together outside Nordic walking. It’s a great way to make friends,” said Helen, while Angela interjected, “We all walk together. You do get to know people and help people if they need it.”
Many participants have joined the group to benefit from the workouts. “Our group members range from those who might attempt a marathon to those who are in their 80s and just want to keep the joints going and walk around the town,” said Helen. She says the activity offers health advantages which are greater than simply walking because Nordic walkers will use the whole body. “If you can walk, anyone can do it. Once you have learned the Nordic technique, it engages 90% of your muscles. It’s going from a walk to a total workout. There are greater advantages to cardiovascular health, muscle tone, flexibility, mobility and balance. It’s good for general wellbeing and being outside is a bonus. And you can do it with your friends,” she added.
When you see Nordic walkers charging along Park Walk, you might think that a fast pace is important. Helen says that’s not the case. “It’s not about the speed. It’s about the varying intensity by the way you use the poles. That’s how you can increase your fitness, even if you are a slow walker. You are pushing the pole to the hip and it helps to propel you forward and engage more muscles. As you get fitter and stronger and progress, you can push the poles further back which makes you increase your stride length, so you use more muscles and more energy. It’s great for burning calories and losing weight. Throw in a hill or push harder on the poles and you can increase the intensity without increasing the speed.”
Helen says her walkers have reported that the sessions have changed the way they walk around town when they don’t have their poles. “That’s what people have told me. It has made them more aware of their posture and how they walk. As their fitness increases every week, then naturally they seem to walk faster when they are doing other things.”
The poles are the crucial element and they are specially made. “The main thing is the hand strap. It’s like a little fitted glove rather than the loop you will see on a basic trekking poll. One of the important things is to get a nice lightweight, carbon fibre pole,” said Helen.
“The poles make you walk at a more consistent speed. You don’t push yourself along, but they open your shoulders,” explained regular Nordic walker, Lesley Shepherd. Her friend and fellow walker, Gillian Darwell, is an advocate of the technique. “I was also having terrible trouble with my knees and hips because I taught yoga for forty years. By using the poles, it takes forty percent of the weight of your hips and knees and puts the energy back onto your chest, and opens your chest. It’s brilliant. And Helen is fantastic,” Gillian enthused.
It’s easy to get bored of staring at mirrors or walls in a gym. Nordic walkers get to enjoy an ever-changing backdrop – Shaftesbury’s stunning views. “Certainly, everybody likes some nice scenery. So we are lucky to live in Shaftesbury and have that. Although people moan about the hills, they are with friends and they’re getting fit,” Helen said.
Shaftesbury resident Lesley agrees. “It’s made me enjoy being out much more and it has made me enjoy walking more. I walk a lot more than I used to,” she said. Her favourite walk is along to the French Mill, up the hills sometimes up to Melbury Beacon. “That’s a nice long walk to see the seasons change,” she says.
The walkers can, themselves, become a spectator sport. I’ve witnessed bemused café patrons stare and gawp as the group struts past. “You can feel self-conscious. It looks a bit unusual, but I think that is less true now as it has become more commonplace and you see people with poles, whether the Nordic walking or trekking. There is less stigma with it now,” said Helen.
“It’s quite strange and if you haven’t got any coordination, like me, it does take some time getting used,” added Angela. “But Helen is very good at showing you how to do it. She is great as a tutor. We are a very good group.”
Gillian has been Nordic walking for seven years. Her words of endorsement were possibly the most powerful you could imagine. “It’s changed my life,” said Gillian. “I have a chronic lung condition and a sinus condition, and it has upped my breathing abilities because it gives me the cardiovascular exercise I need.”
She says that seven years ago, she would have found it difficult to tackle our town’s slopes. “I can walk up hills. Every day I walk from the bottom of Fontmell Down up to the top of Melbury Beacon and I do it without Ventolin.” Because Gillian no longer needs that prescription drug before she embarks on a Nordic walk workout, she is sold on the sport’s wellbeing qualities. She even takes her poles on holiday with her. “I have got collapsible poles. I can put them in my bag and take them through security, or if I take poles which cannot collapse, I put them through with the pushchairs.”
If you fancy a new activity that will help you form new friendships as you get fit, visit Helen’s website at www.PolesAhead.co.uk.