Walking Sticks for Elders

Above is a picture of my “walking sticks”, pretentiously posing under the signage explaining the history of Rocky Fork Metro Park in New Albany, OH where the sticks spend most of their work time. These “walking sticks” are also called hiking sticks, trekking poles, walking poles, Nordic walking poles and ski poles, names shedding light on their origins. My Physical Therapist called them “assistive devices”, a label that explains how they became the focus of this blog post.

This post officially launches my campaign for “Walking Sticks for Elders”.

Context counts, so I will first provide a brief history. While some think this was practiced much earlier, it is agreed that in the late 1970s, Mauri Repo, a coach in the Finnish Sports Federation formally introduced “Nordic Walking”, defining it as a new part of cross-country skiing training methodology. It involved walking with trekking poles with long rhythmic strides, mimicking the movements of cross-country skiing…. without snow! During snow free seasons, cross-country skiers would adopt this method to train, using the same poles and upper body movements that they would use in the snow. In 1988 the trekking poles were introduced in the United States as sports equipment, called “Nordic Walking Poles”.

Personal context counts too. I have a life-long problem with balance, probably a function of an undiagnosed and untreated childhood head injury. Seven years ago, I had that difficult fall that sends a warning signal to humans watching aging chasing them down a corridor. Because I have excellent bone density, this fall left my hip bones intact but soft muscle tissue disconnected from bones, leading to a long recovery and a lingering slight limp that exacerbated my balance problems. Concurrently, the normal decline of balance due to aging was escalating, the hip injury complicating the process.

Like many elders, I had a choice to make. If I wanted to continue to maintain mobility I would need, to my chagrin, an “assistive device”. I realized I was avoiding this because I didn’t want to publicly indicate I needed such a device, that I had limitations that others might find a sign of weakness or deterioration. Eventually, I confronted my fear, and myself, purchased a cane, and started my daily walking commitment…with a cane! I hated the looks people sent me, as if I were damaged, but I persisted. With the cane, I could walk without the fear of falling. Then, I noticed that my limp was getting worse, so requested a referral to physical therapy.

And thus, due to a creative Physical Therapist, began my discovery of walking sticks. A huge leap beyond my cane, they improved my posture, involved my whole body in walking, and increased my sense of safety. I became less focused on “assistive device” fretting and started studying how I could optimize my walks.

I learned that flat, paved surfaces were my best option for safe walking. I liked trying gravel or unfinished forest trails but the instability was significant. Sandy beaches were even more inviting, but the degree of instability was even greater. The sand also required so much energy to maintain balance that I discovered I burned most of my “walking energy” surviving the imbalance. Inclines and declines created the same dilemma. This highlighted for me the reality that I needed to decide how much of my daily quota of energy I would or could dedicate to walking, where and under what conditions.

So why the campaign for “Walking Sticks for Elders”. Because I don’t think I am unusual in navigating the factors that decrease mobility options. Other elders do not like that the society we live in tends to “pity” the person using assistive devices, not congratulate them on their mobility. Learning to manage escalating imbalance and the threat of falls is common for elders. The tendency is to assume one can no longer enjoy the mobility of the past. Walking sticks provide options. Discovering the adaptations and choices one can make may open a sense of possibility and hope.

So, I encourage everyone who is 50 years old or older to buy a set of walking sticks. Practice with them, and normalize them as a resource, so when you discover you need them you are ready (you too will find balance challenges escalating). Treat it like a common-sense health optimizing campaign. If you know an elder who you think needs to be more mobile or exercise more, join my campaign for walking sticks. Be a role model. And do so with patience and compassion.

The most motivating “quote” I found came from Wikipedia: ““Nordic Walking”, a type of walking with poles, has been found to have beneficial effects on resting heart rate, blood pressure, exercise capacity, maximal oxygen consumption, and quality of life in patients with various diseases, and to be superior to brisk walking without poles and in some endpoints to jogging.” Research has documented that using trekking poles results in burning more calories, walking faster and easier, taking a load off of muscles and joints and (coming full circle), balancing better.

The campaign continues.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

- Albert Einstein -