Nordic walking has long list of health benefits, including some relief for those with Parkinson’s 

Linda Lemke (white shorts) became a nordic walking instructor and began teaching introductory classes, leading weekly walking groups and presenting nordic walking to businesses in the Twin Cities as part of their corporate wellness programs. Photo by Frank Lee

Linda Lemke is used to receiving strange looks when she walks with poles and no skis, but she’s determined to help people get healthier — one step at a time.

“ ‘Did you forget your skis? Where’s the snow? Did you miss the forecast?’” she said of some of the comments from onlookers new to Nordic walking. “But once they try the poles, they never ask those questions again.”

The 65-year-old is an advocate of Nordic walking, which uses special poles for balance, and strengthens the upper body and improves posture. She organized a Nordic walking group that meets 9 a.m. Thursdays at Lake George in St. Cloud.

“Nordic walking is defined as ‘fitness walking with poles,’” she said. “The big difference is you engage your upper body while you are walking, so there are definite, proven benefits as far as posture because the poles encourage you to stand up.”

Lemke believes the natural rhythm of Nordic walking “refreshes your brain and relaxes your spirit” because it is an “outdoor, nature-based activity” that practically anyone can do, including those with Parkinson’s disease, she said.

“Nordic walking is fun, it’s easy, and it’s a great activity to share with friends,” said Lemke, a Cold Spring resident. “The simple addition of poles connecting you to the earth with every step turns your daily walk into a total body workout.”

Other benefits of Nordic walking include: reduced stress on lower joints (ankles, knees, hips and lower back), increased heart rate and calorie burn, 30 percent more use of the body’s muscles, and improved core strength and oxygen consumption.

“In 2005, I was working for Hoigaard’s, and they started selling Nordic walking poles,” she said. “It was new to the Midwest, and I was very excited to have something to add to our walks that would increase the workout and the fun factor of walking.”

Nordic walking poles are not readily available in stores in Minnesota, according to Lemke. And while hiking poles can be bought, they are not the same as Nordic walking poles, which start from about $100 and should last for almost a decade.

“And you can spend up to $200 for a pair if you wanted top-of-the-line, or ones that fold up smaller, so they can go into a suitcase and travel with you, but you can get good quality poles — it will be an all aluminum pole — at around $100,” she said.

“You want to make sure that when you do buy one, that it has a rubber tip on it that has maximum surface area on it because you’re going to be putting pressure on the tip of that pole. And you want to make sure that they are adjustable and have a lock-out.”

Lemke became an instructor and trainer, and began teaching introductory classes, leading weekly walking groups and presenting Nordic walking to many businesses in the Twin Cities as part of their corporate wellness programs.

“It’s always more fun to walk in a group,” said Lemke, who also started a Cold Spring group. “As we walk and talk, make new friends and share our stories, the time flies by, and we enjoy the new connections with people who want to be active outdoors.”

Lemke even teaches community education classes and trains new instructors, so they can begin their own classes and walking groups.

“Our walks are scheduled for an hour of walking, that usually equals about 3 miles of walking. However, everyone is invited and encouraged to walk at their own pace and distance,” she said of the walks, which are free in St. Cloud with equipment provided.

“We often split into different groups, so that everyone has someone to walk with and no one is overexerting themselves.”

Parkinson’s disease

Lemke received a Silverstein Community Service Award at a June 11 dinner and benefit in Golden Valley from the Struthers Parkinson’s Center.

“It’s an award for volunteers who are making a difference in the lives of people with Parkinson’s,” Lemke said.

Lemke met Liz Ogren, of Edina, the 54-year-old founder of Pedal & Roll for Parkinson’s, at Hoigaard’s when Ogren was buying skis for her children at the store, which is how Lemke started working with the Struthers Parkinson’s Center.

“She was just walking around with Nordic walking poles, and I said, ‘That looks like it would be really good for people with Parkinson’s. Would you ever consider teaching a group with Parkinson’s how to use those poles to walk better?’” Ogren said.

Lemke, a Minneapolis native who has a degree in recreational therapy, said, “I didn’t know a lot about the disease, but I said, ‘I would be absolutely happy to do that.’ It was a good fit with my background in therapeutic recreation.”

Ogren was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007 “after several years of subtle yet remarkable changes that were odd for a young active person,” according to her website www.pedalandroll.org, and was convinced by her family to be more active.

“I am a former teacher whose career was cut short by Parkinson’s,” Ogren said. “It was hard to diagnose because I was young — people don’t think people who are young as having Parkinson’s. I was 39. … I had to wrap my head around that.”

Parkinson’s disease usually begins between the ages of 50 and 65, “striking about 1 percent of the population in that age group; it is slightly more common in men than in women,” according to WebMD.com.

“I was having trouble sleeping, I was having trouble writing things because my hand would shake, and I couldn’t do things like teachers have to do like write names on papers and grade papers, which would take me a long time to do that,” Ogren said.

The duo visits Parkinson’s support groups with Nordic walking poles and a fleet of adaptive bicycles for those with balance challenges to encourage them to be active.

“We kind of have this little dog-and-pony show that we go around and encourage people to keep moving — that moving is the only thing that’s going to keep that disease at bay,” Lemke said.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement and is incurable, although medication “may markedly improve your symptoms,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Part of the joy with Nordic walking is being outside, and when you are afraid of slipping and falling because you have poor balance or an awkward gait, you can’t play much outside,” Ogren said.

“Nordic walking helps get you into a rhythm, so you don’t shuffle your feet; people with Parkinson’s tend to shuffle their feet, but this is forcing you to take steps that are big enough that you have to actually swing your arm and put your foot forward.”

Ogren said she experienced balance issues, and stiff and aching muscles, and it would take an inordinate amount of time for her to accomplish things that required movement because of her Parkinson’s disease.

“If I don’t take medication, I simply cannot walk or move. Rolling over in bed takes a concerted effort and sometimes a lot of pain, trying to move stiff muscles,” she said. “I have kind of an awkward gait; I use the Nordic walking poles to correct my gait.”

Starting in July, Lemke will begin a Nordic walking group in Sartell specifically for those with Parkinson’s. The group will meet to walk the third Monday of the month at Independent Lifestyles in Sartell.

“Initially, I stopped exercising because I have a movement disorder,” Ogren said. “But that’s actually contrary to what you should do; if you have a movement disorder, you should move excessively, so you can keep your body knowing how to move.”

(L to R) Mary Forner, of St. Cloud; Larry Miller, of St. Cloud; Marcie Popowski, of Sartell; Loretta Anderson, of St. Cloud; Linda Lemke, of Cold Spring; Walter Osterholt, of St. Cloud; and John Forner, of St. Cloud use Nordic walking poles for balance and to improve posture and their fitness. Photo by Frank Lee

Change of pace

The Nordic walking group in St. Cloud will continue meeting at Lake George through July. That group meets each Thursday at 9 a.m. by the granite fountains by Lake George. New locations are expected in August.

“One of my commitments with Nordic walking is that I love volunteering group walks, which is really important to me — providing people the opportunity to come together — and if they’ve never tried it, have a safe and easy place to try it,” she said.

Lemke said her Nordic walking groups in Cold Spring and in St. Cloud started in 2015 and typically run from April through October. She encouraged people to check out her website www.NordicWalkingqueen.com for a calendar of events and locations.

“Our walks are free, poles are provided, and a quick introduction to Nordic walking is available for newcomers,” she said.

“There are also lots of classes in local communities. There is a technique to using the poles, and the classes are a good way to get started. If you don’t see a class or walk in your community, contact me and let’s see if we can get something started!”

According to the American Nordic Walking Association, Nordic walking began in Finland in the early 20th century as a summer training exercise for cross-country skiers.

“The real breakthrough of Nordic walking as a practiced exercise came in 1997, when a Finnish company, in cooperation with athletes and sports medicine experts, invented a new wrist strap system to make the present-day Nordic walking technique possible,” according to the association’s website.

“Most people realize the improvement in their posture and a bit of extra exertion after their first walk. The beauty is that walking with poles is gentle on your body, and you won’t notice that you’re working harder,” Lemke said.

“The other thing I love about the poles is the rhythm of walking and swinging your arms and connecting to the ground with each step. It’s a moving meditation that relaxes your body and spirit, and it feels so good!”