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Not Your Father's Cane

Boomers increasingly opt for trekking poles and walking sticks

Courtney Coe of REI.com, an outdoor adventure retailer and hiking tour sponsor, says more than 50 percent of the people who sign up for the company's tours fall into the over-55 crowd. "We don't track who uses trekking poles on our trips; however we recommend trekking poles on just about all of our hiking trips," she says. "People have commented frequently on how helpful the poles are on the tour du Mont Blanc and Everest base camp trek."

Getting a leg up

Older adults have found that walking poles can reduce load-bearing weight on their knees, hips and spine. "They found a very simple tool that with very basic training they could enjoy the outdoors, get exercise and rotate their spine," Paley says. "You are using muscles that support and elongate the spine."

Brazos Walking Sticks, a central Texas company that makes handcrafted wood trekking poles and canes, has responded to the demand by expanding the availability of its sticks from 605 retail outlets to more than 2,500 in 2010, according to Steve Walsh, who does marketing for Brazos.

But poles aren't just for hikers. They can also be a godsend to injured weekend athletes. Walter Johnson, 68, of West Palm Beach, Fla., and Highland Park, Mich., found the Nordic-style poles with rubber tips for concrete use kept his exercise regimen active after a painful setback in 2009.

"All my muscles atrophied after knee surgery," says Johnson, who traded his inline skates and Cannondale bike for Nordic poles. They helped him walk up to 20 miles a day for two years until his legs healed sufficiently to resume cycling. Johnson now teaches classes in pole walking along Detroit's riverfront.

"The three things a physical therapist looks at with a client is structure, issues and goals," says Paley, adding that height, weight, adjustability and grip are factors. Specialized poles can accommodate hand arthritis, Parkinson's and inflamed hip abductors.

"You amble up Mount Tamalpais to do some world-class hiking 2,600 feet above San Francisco and you get that feeling, that one set of poles helped you enjoy the outdoors and get to the top of the mountain," Paley says. "You sashay, strut and smile while you move."

You may also like: 6 great hikes. >>

Maureen McDonald is a writer in Detroit.

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