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Nordic walking gets the nodA sport that has been popular overseas for decades is making inroads here. Poon Chian Hui reports
Retiree Pan Sin Ying may be 81 but he has been learning how to walk - not just with his legs, but also with his arms and core muscles.
In October, he joined a group of 12 people at Fort Canning Park for an hour-long Nordic walking session.
That was the first time he tried the sport, which involves walking with two specially designed poles using a variety of techniques for a full-body workout.
Nordic walking is making inroads here, with more opportunities available now for people to learn it.
Sports Singapore, which oversees sports development and manages public sports facilities islandwide, has rolled out classes for the first time last month for Nordic walking, or what it terms "urban trekking".
It costs $50 to $68 for four classes conducted by certified trainers. They are held at Bishan Stadium and Delta Sports Complex, with the poles provided for students.
As the programme is quite new, sign-up figures are not available yet, said a Sports Singapore spokesman.
However, an estimated 5,000 people have tried urban trekking to date, through various Sports Singapore platforms.
These include open houses, sports festivals, roadshows and trial classes at sports centres.
Interested learners can also take lessons under the Singapore Nordic Walkers Meetup Group, started by self-taught practitioner Charles Lo in March this year.
While Mr Lo has been offering monthly lessons for free, he will be charging $10 per session starting this month, partly because more people have been expressing an interest in participating, he said.
However, he can manage a maximum of only 12 people per session.
"All the money collected will be donated to charity," said the 61-year-old retiree, who stumbled upon the exercise while seeking treatment for obesity at a clinic in Switzerland last year.
Part of the programme involves doing Nordic walking, he said.
After practising it regularly, the 1.68m-tall man went from a hefty 87kg to a healthier 73kg. It has also relieved some of the severe pain in both his knees.
"I have no intention to be a guru of any kind. I just want to teach others so they can practise it on their own to improve their health."
His sessions are usually held at Fort Canning Park and participants can range from as young as six to over 80 years old, like Mr Pan.
A FULL-BODY WORKOUT
Nordic walking is a popular form of exercise in Europe that originated in Finland in the 1930s. It involves gently pushing on a pair of poles with each stride in a specific manner, and it is practised on a variety of terrain, including paved raods and nature trails.
It works the chest, lats (short for latissimus dorsi, the largest muscle in the back), triceps, biceps, shoulders, core and the spine.
Some studies have shown that Nordic walking causes the heart to beat faster, compared with regular walking, said Dr Sonali Ganguly, a consultant endocrinologist at Singapore General Hospital.
It could possibly burn more calories too. The increase in energy consumption, when pitted against walking, was 5 per cent to 63 per cent, studies show. The wide range may reflect differences in the intensity and techniques used, she added.
Nordic walking is considered a low-impact cardiovascular workout, said certified trainer Philip Lim.
This makes it suitable for people who cannot engage in high-impact exercises like running - such as those with knee injuries or those who have suffered a stroke, he said.
However, the exercise may not be safe for those with balance and coordination issues, said Dr Ganguly.
All in all, the workout can be done pretty much anywhere.
"As long as there is a pathway, you can do it, even on slopes, steps and stairs," said Mr Lim. "You can do it both indoors and outdoors - for example, in the carpark, under sheltered walkways or in the park."
MAKING A COMEBACK
Mr Lim is one of the first Nordic walking instructors here, having started classes in 2008 after receiving his certification.
Then, he left his job as a swimming coach to teach Nordic walking full-time, under his newly founded Nordic Academy Singapore. While the interest was "quite strong" back then, it could not be sustained.
"Some elderly people would say that they were walking fine, so why did they need poles to do it? It made them look handicapped," he recalled.
The high cost of the poles was another deterring factor. A set of fixed-height Nordic walking poles can cost more than $200, while adjustable ones are more than $100.
The lack of fellow instructors also hindered efforts to popularise the sport, added Mr Lim, who returned to his old job in 2011.
But he is now making a comeback after Sports Singapore contacted him earlier this year to run classes under its new ActiveSG movement, he said.
This national movement, launched in April, aims to provide people of all ages with opportunities to get involved in sports and exercise.
Mr Simon Tan, deputy director of programming, club design and planning at ActiveSG, said the movement goes beyond traditional sports to include "new, innovative and experiential programmes" as a creative way to encourage people to lead an active lifestyle through sport.
Before a new programme is introduced, ActiveSG conducts some market research to assess the supply and demand for it, he added.
"These efforts are complemented by running trial classes to drive awareness and interest," he said.
Mr Lim started holding these classes last month and participation has been good, he said.
Another instructor roped in by Sports Singapore is Ms Sandra Linnemann, 38, who was trained and certified in Britain.
The Lithuania native admits that getting people here to take up the sport can be challenging due to several misconceptions.
"When people see the word 'Nordic', they get the impression that it should be done in cool weather, while Singapore is too hot and rainy," said Ms Linnemann, who moved here about three years ago and founded a fitness centre, Core Synergy Studio, in Mohamed Sultan Road.
Many may also think that Nordic walking is the same as hiking, as some hikers use similar poles on their treks. However, those differ from Nordic walking poles, which have a metal pin at the bottom or a removable rubber tip, for certain terrain, she said.
"It is a matter of educating people on the benefits of the workout."
Agreeing, Mr Lo said the sport has "tremendous potential" here if people learn how to do it properly.
"It is like relearning the way you walk. On the first try, your arms may feel tired as we don't normally exert our arm muscles while walking."
But it is not difficult to get the hang of it, he added. "In fact, because it is easier on your joints, you will find that you can walk longer distances with this technique."
To make things less daunting, Mr Lo has recently devised a method of making "do-it-yourself" poles, which one can build using basic materials such as wooden poles that are used for floor mops and bicycle handle wrap.
With this, people who are not yet ready to invest in commercially made equipment can still try the exercise in their own time, he explained.
Mr Lim hopes that with the current backing and promotional efforts of Sports Singapore, Nordic walking will finally take off here.
"I believe that its popularity is picking up, though it is still in the infant stages," he said.
5 things about the sport
1. You can do this exercise day or night and just about anywhere.
All you need is comfortable attire, shoes and a set of poles.
Take note that the sport is best done on smooth terrain. When the ground is rocky, you will not be able to apply the appropriate techniques for a full-body workout.
Otherwise, you can practise this on the pavement, slopes, on grass and sand.
2. It is suitable for all ages, and for both men and women, especially those with injuries.
If you do not like to, or cannot do high-impact cardiovascular workouts; if you love outdoor activities and just enjoy being close to nature; or if you have knee and lower back problems, Nordic walking will be suitable for you.
And, yes, even kids can do it.
3. It is not just regular walking with sticks.
There is a technique that makes this exercise unique and effective.
There are different levels and variations to suit beginners and those who are at a more advanced level. That is why it is not just for elderly people, as most people may believe.
4. It is not the same as hiking or trekking.
Due to specific techniques and how the poles are used, the focus is placed on incorporating upper-body and core muscles.
These muscles get conditioned during the exercise, and it is said to help the person burn up to
46 per cent more calories than regular walking in the same amount of time.
5. The poles are not heavy.
The poles used in Nordic walking are light and durable. Depending on the brand, the quality and comfort can vary.
The added benefit and muscle conditioning is achieved from applying the right techniques, and not from the weight of pole.
Source: Ms Sandra Linnemann, founder and managing director of Core Synergy Studio and certified trainer in Nordic walking
Where to sign up
1. Bishan Stadium. Saturdays, 7pm to 8pm. $50 for four classes.
2. Delta Sports Hall. Tuesdays, 8.30am to 9.30am. $68 for four classes, or $22 per class.
To sign up for either, call 6352-6631 (Bishan) or 6471-9030 (Delta). Or, book the classes online at www.myactivesg.com.
Note: Singaporeans and permanent residents who register as ActiveSG members at www.myactivesg.com or at sports centres islandwide will receive $100 worth of credits, which can be used to offset fees by up to 30 per cent.
Singapore Nordic Walkers Meetup Group
Fort Canning Park. Second Friday of every month, 7pm to about 9pm (includes a 30-minute Q&A and a 30-minute session on how to make your own set of DIY poles; both are optional). $10 per class. A set of poles will be loaned to beginners for free for the lesson. To join, go to: www.meetup.com/Singapore-Nordic-Walking-Meetup.