The obvious question upon spotting someone walking along with poles in their hands – for those who are not aware that enthusiasts claim it burns 46 per cent more calories than normal walking – is why?
“We do get funny looks when we’re out walking,” admits Helen Beckley, 32. “Safety in numbers – we’re all looking mad together, and we enjoy it, so we don’t mind. But if I got a dirham for every time someone passing me said: ‘Oh, you’ve forgotten the snow,’ I’d be very rich!”
Beckley became the UAE’s first qualified Nordic Walking instructor two years ago and works with ProActive sports company, which runs twice-weekly Nordic Walking sessions on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island.
“It originated from cross-country skiing and it’s what cross-country skiers do in the off-season,” she says, “so people associate it with snow.”
Nordic Walking is not to be confused with trekking, hill walking or trail running, which use different poles and techniques. Nordic walking poles are gripped and released so as to give the upper-body muscles a workout at the same time as the legs.
“The poles help to propel the walker along,” explains Beckley. “It means you work harder than usual, yet the support given by the poles makes it feel easier.”
Beckley alternates her routes each week and varies the focus of the sessions too.
“Sometimes we’ll find some slopes – hills would probably be a bit of an exaggeration – to go up and down. I always try to include a bit of strength work as well so we might stop and do some press-ups or triceps dips on the benches en route.”
In Dubai, British expatriate Joanna Macdonald, 53, leads groups pole-walking – or “soul walking” as she likes to call it. Whereas Beckley’s groups are run primarily as a way for people to get fit, Macdonald set up Keenfit Middle East in Dubai seven years ago.
“Previously, I was head of corporate affairs for HSBC and then Barclays, I had two young children and I worked 24/7. The miracles of life were passing me by,” she recalls. “I had an epiphany, and decided to change my priorities. Running Keenfit walking groups was a wonderful way to meet people again. When you’re walking, you let go and talk about things. People keep their eyes down when they first start. I tell them to acknowledge people who walk by with their eyes, because you feel so much happier by making eye contact.”
Macdonald’s Canadian Keenfit walking poles, which she sells for Dh250, come with three different toggles at the bottom so they can be adjusted for sand, flat paths and fields.
Since launching the business, Macdonald has helped to establish Keenfit-affiliated groups as far away as Africa. A representative of the Saudi National Guard, who learnt to pole-walk with Macdonald in Dubai, now has his troops doing it in Jeddah.
“Pole-walking is a great stepping stone to get back to exercise for people who carry a lot of weight or haven’t been flexible for a long time,” says Macdonald. “The poles aren’t just there to give you extra cardio, they’re also there to support you so you’re walking in perfect alignment. Like yoga, pole-walking helps to create balance.”