Nordic walking makes debut to fitness world at instructor show

Nordic walking made its official debut to the North American fitness scene this weekend before a small but definitely intrigued group of exercise instructors at the IDEA show for fitness professionals.
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Nordic walking made its official debut to the North American fitness scene this weekend before a small but definitely intrigued group of exercise instructors at the IDEA show for fitness professionals.

Only seven fitness teachers poled their way around a grassy spit of land down the way from the San Diego Convention Center, site of the IDEA World Fitness Convention, where 3,200 professionals were meeting to take classes, workshops, lectures and generally to network with other teachers and trainers to find out what's new. With the launch of the class decided a bit late to make it onto the regular program for classes on-site, Nordic walking promoter and pole manufacturer Exel tapped into the show as an official "special session," albeit held off-site. In this case the off-site was far enough away to deter attendees who either didn't want to take the time to get there and back or who couldn't even find the session.

But the ones who did make the effort had positive comments about the experience.

"I learned that it's a good workout for my population and for myself as well," said Cynthia Gibford, 59, who works as both exercise instructor and nurse at St. Mary's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colo. "We older ones are doing more gentle things. We used to jump around, but now I have bad knees."

Exel, the Finnish pole-maker, sponsored the walking clinic in hopes that Gibford and others like her would join the company's instructor program and help it spread the word to the public about the activity. Exel and a couple of other companies hope that interest can fan the flames in fitness and ignite higher participation like has been growing all over Europe in the last two years. Exel and its primary competitors Leki and Swix see the U.S. fitness walking market as their brightest region for growth, it seems.

Nordic walking's appeal as a low-impact form of full-body exercise wasn't such a reach for IDEA workshop participants, many of whom had already used poles cross-country skiing or hiking. One was a former physical education instructor hoping to work with the physically impaired, while another planned to lead what walking clinics with an emphasis on weight loss.

While walking with poles is par for the course in Scandinavia and other central European countries, it is barely even a fringe activity in North America. However, during the technique session by Exel Master Trainer Malin Svensson, none of the participants seemed shy, and they drew hardly a glance from dozens of picnickers on the lawn by San Diego Bay. So much for the skepticism and worry of being stared it for doing something so off-beat in public as to be considered dorky.

Logistics and luck worked against attracting an overflow crowd at this event. Despite having signups of 30-40, a lack of signs made it next to impossible for participants to find Exel's little yellow tent, erected several football field lengths from the convention center and hidden behind Joe's Crab Shack. Even without a large number of attendees, the company will likely gain some exposure for its program. Exel took out a full-page ad in the event catalog and had exhibit space on the show floor, although traffic at the booth was light. Two or three people signed up for Exel's trainer program, said Tracy Ferland, the sales and marketing manager.

At next year's IDEA conference in Las Vegas, Exel hopes to gain legitimacy by hosting a seminar for which participants could receive continuing education credits. Ferland said she was "a little disappointed," but not necessarily surprised.

"The people we had here were psyched," she said. "It's brand new and nobody knows about it. It's something that's going to take time."

Exel now has nearly 30 instructors in the United States and 15 master trainers-in-training, Svensson said. The company offers seminars every month in Los Angeles and, after San Diego, Exel was headed to a half-day session with 15 or so Reebok master trainers. Reebok is a huge player in the European Nordic walking scene, even promoting poles branded as Reebok and Nordic walking shoes and clothes.

Exel has high hopes for clinic participants like Shelley Chryst, a former volleyball coach whose personal back problems have moved her to work with less fit populations.

"I'm looking for new things that people with some impairments might be not be able to do, like the running, the swimming, the boot camps," said Chryst, 38, looking down at the Exel Trainer pole strapped to her hand. "You can reach pretty much anyone with this."

SNEWS® View: We're not surprised about the low turnout. Having been involved in out-of-the-box activities introduced at IDEA shows, it can take either a few years and a lot of persistence to get a new concept rolling OR the backing of a powerhouse company (such as a Nike or Reebok) which also has the money to have an event closer to the halls and perhaps offer significant freebies to attract always-freebie-hungry instructors. All the cards seemed to be playing against Exel in this case, not only with an off-site … waaaaay off-site … location, but also being hidden, making it hard to find. Instructors are quick to sign up for events at these shows, then just as quick to jettison them when they realize their schedule is overloaded. But persistence will win the game here.

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