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Not Your Father's Cane

Boomers increasingly opt for trekking poles and walking sticks

Jayah Faye Paley started out 15 years ago teaching a smattering of 70-year-old women and others how to use trekking poles to navigate the hills surrounding San Francisco. Now, the 53-year-old certified trainer from Pacifica, Calif., teaches multiple classes all over the country, including at Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Park, and at adventure stores, local recreation stores and senior activity centers.

Her roster of students has expanded to people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s. They want balance, stability and endurance to drive their exercise routine to greater heights — even with inflammatory joints that limit weight-bearing pressure on hips, knees and feet.

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"Trekking with poles is walking with serious attitude," says Paley, who has sold more than 12,000 copies of her trio of DVDs on using poles for hiking, Nordic walking or basic mobility.

As boomers age and remain active, interest is soaring in trekking poles as well as walking canes and sticks. Sales of the aluminum or carbon variety, sold singular or in pairs at sporting good stores and websites, increased 21.5 percent to $29.9 million for fiscal 2010, after a 13 percent spike from 2009 to 2010, according to Jim Hartford, chief marketing analyst for SportsOneSource Group, a retail research firm in Charlotte, N.C. Online retailers are stepping up their response to consumer demand with even more variety of models, he adds.

Case in point is, where hard-goods buyer Chris Rogers reports that orders for trekking poles are up 30 percent from 2009 to 2010. Consumers can find a wide degree of adjustability, enhanced shock absorbers and even a device on the handle that positions a camera to capture photos of the wilderness.

Support for active lifestyles

The newest technology include quick, external locks on two sections of the poles that are easy for people with arthritis to operate and easier to adjust for uphill and downhill trails.

Poles enable walkers to go farther along forest trails by spreading their weight onto two lightweight devices, which helps alleviate pressure on fragile hips and knee joints. Senior citizen centers and YMCAs offer classes across the country to teach proper technique.

Heinz Johnson, 82, a hike leader in San Antonio, says he and his wife use aluminum walking sticks on trails. "Lot of value to the poles," says Johnson, who likes the stability that the devices lend for walking over rocks and through small streams on hiking trails.

Courtney Coe of, 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."

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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."

Maureen McDonald is a writer in Detroit.

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