Walking with Poles: Get An Upper Body Workout While Walking

David Mendosa Health Guide July 14, 2009
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    Walking is the exercise of choice for most people, especially when we would rather be outdoors than in a gym. Walking is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease, the biggest problem that those of us who have diabetes face.

    If all we want to do is strengthen our lower body, we need only comfortable clothes and supportive footwear. But walking does little or nothing to strengthen the muscles of our upper body.


    Unless we walk with poles, like Ken Mundt does.

    "The advantage is that I get a whole upper body workout," he told me when I called him at his home in Seattle. "My chest muscles get a good workout, because I don't slam my poles. I place them, and then I push."

    Ken is now 58. Five years ago when a doctor told him that he has type 2 diabetes, he started a regular pole walking program. Every day during the week he walks between five and six miles with his Exerstrider poles. On Saturday he walks eight miles and takes off on Sunday.

    Ken Mundt Strides with his Walking Poles
    (Photo by Elizabeth Goldberg; Used by Permission)

    "I never had any upper body strength before, but my wife says she's noticed a difference," Ken told a reporter for The Seattle Times. "It's a total workout."

    Ken told me that if he hadn't been diagnosed with diabetes, his health wouldn't be as good as it is now, because he wouldn't have been taking such good care of his body. "It was a blessing."

    Five years ago his BMI was 25, right at the upper limit of a normal weight. He didn't smoke. "I just got the lucky straw and ended in the 6 percent pool" of Americans with diabetes.

    "Because I have diabetes, I'm doing now what I should have done all along," Ken told me. He brought his BMI down to 22.5 by being "a little more sensible about what I eat and by working out regularly. I know that I wouldn't have been as diligent about exercise without the having the impetus of diabetes."

    Ken has to get up early for his exercise. Really early.

    While he lives in Seattle, Ken is director of community engagement for IslandWood, a nonprofit outdoor education center on Bainbridge Island, eight miles across Puget Sound from Seattle. Since he has to catch the 7:05 a.m. ferry, Ken sets his alarm for 3:45 a.m. to get the  hour and 20 minutes he needs for his walk.

    "It's not that I like getting up at 3:45," he told me. But he's determined to control his diabetes. He gets his A1C checked every three months, and he keeps his level below 7.0.

    I told Ken that I have used a slightly different kind of walking sticks for years and even wrote an article here two years ago about hiking with them. But for a while I stopped using them except for backpacking, mountain climbing, and snowshoeing, after a friend suggested that I could improve my balance more by hiking without them. Then, few months ago I resumed using my trekking poles when my chiropractor pointing out to me that I have other ways to work on my balance and that I am a lot less likely to fall when I use them.

    "I don't have any trouble with my balance," Ken replied, "and I like the upper body workout. When I use my poles for hiking, it saves the wear and tear on my knees. Also, people say if you use poles, you save a mile for every 10 miles you walk."

    "The trick is to find what works for you," Ken told me at the end of the interview. "This exercise and the way I eat works for me. I am satisfied, I don't feel deprived, and I am doing the right thing. And that's how it's sustainable."