Walking may well be the perfect fitness activity, but let's get real: It can be rather, um, pedestrian. Try invigorating your walks with the Nordic Walking poles. An import from Finland (10 percent of Finns regularly Nordic walk for exercise), the poles were introduced to the United States in January 2004; three companies—Exel (nordicwalker.com), Lefi(leki.com), and Swix (www.swixsport.com)—now sell the rubber-tipped poles ($60-$200 a set), which are most commonly made from graphite and fiberglass.
Unlike hiking poles, which are used primarily to add stability, Nordic walking poles are also designed to increase the intensity of your workout. You'll burn 20-46 percent more calories Nordic walking than during regular walking and get an upper-body (including abs) workout while taking stress off your ankles and knees, says Mark Fenton, the Scituate, Mass.-based author of The Complete Guide to Walking For Health, Weight Loss and Fitness (Lyons Press, 2001). "Using the poles is a great way to intensify your workout without racewalking," he says.
Pole use is also quite different from that of hikers, who plant the poles almost parallel to the body. Nordic walkers plant the poles angles backward at about a 45-degree angle to the ground, then push the pole and the hand holding it back behind the hip. To maximize intensity and muscle recruitment, Nordic walkers should push each hand aggressively behind them until the elbow fully extends, explains Joy Prouty, a Nordic walk trainer in Palm Beach, Fla. "This really gets your triceps, shoulders and torso involved in the motion," she says.
Nordic walking is also a versatile workout. You can do it on any surface—sidewalks, beaches, gravel or dirt trails. So grab some poles and head outside!