Walking enhanced with pick up sticks

Adding a pair of poles boosts the quality of the workout

I came upon my new winter activity almost by accident.

I was heading out for a hike through my local forest preserve when I decided to take a pair of trekking poles. I'd fallen in love with them on a summer hiking trip, and thought they might liven up the walk.

The trail was covered with snow. I found myself walking faster. The poles were urging me forward and also secured my footing in the snow. I zipped up and down with them, speeding through the hushed woods, my cheeks pink and my breath frozen.

This didn't feel like a walk; it felt like cross-country skiing without the skis. I loved it.

But what was it?

Nordic walking? Snow hiking with trekking poles?

I took the question to Nancy Trock, an Oak Park personal trainer who teaches Nordic walking and kindly took me out for a miniclinic.

Clearly, I had not been Nordic walking.

Nordic walking is fast walking using specially designed poles. They are lighter than trekking poles, and attach to the wrist so firmly that you don't need to grasp the handles. Their pointed tips are covered with angled rubber pads called paws, or feet.

Trock led me through the basics: Reach one hand out as if you are shaking someone's hand. Then pull that hand back and reach forward with the other hand.

Now walk, arms swinging with each hand naturally moving forward with the opposite-side foot, dragging the poles behind you. Gradually start using the poles, reaching forward with one arm and pole, then the other.

This was Nordic walking, and within minutes I was doing it decently on the sidewalk.

And loving it. My arms were working, my heart pumping. I was taking a walk, but I seemed to be almost running.

"You work the upper body and the lower body very much like cross-country skiing," Trock said. "When people experience it, they feel more like a quadruped than a biped. It's especially good for people who have back problems, hip, knee, ankle and foot problems. It becomes a way of getting outdoors and getting a good cardio workout without stressing the lower body joints."

How good a cardio workout?

It has been shown to increase oxygen uptake, heart rate and energy expenditure by about 20 percent. It burns about 400 calories an hour, compared with regular walking's 280 calories an hour.

And it's easy to learn, easy on the joints and easy to talk through, making it an enjoyable activity with friends.

"You feel really good afterward," said Cindy Gronkiewicz, of River Forest, one of Trock's students, who Nordic walks with a group once or twice a week in warm weather.

"It's fun and it's good exercise," said another walker taught by Trock, Peter Geraghty, of Oak Park. "I like the way it works the upper body."

But I had been getting a great cardio workout and using my whole body on my snow hike. So what was I doing, if not Nordic walking?