Urban Poling: Quickly Gaining Ground with Therapists (Winter 2013)


Submitted by: Barb Gormley, Director of Education, Urban Poling Inc.

In 2004, Vancouver occupational therapist Mandy Shintani was introduced to Nordic walking by a Swedish neighbour. Sceptical at first (“Is this just another gimmicky piece of equipment?” she wondered), her neighbour assured her that Europeans had been exercising with Nordic walking poles for decades.

“I immediately felt my upper body and core muscles working hard,” she recalls, thinking back to her first Nordic walking workout. “My posture felt more upright, and it didn’t jar my joints. Plus, propelling myself with the poles was fun and invigorating.”

She soon discovered 52 research studies all showing that Nordic walking poles and the Nordic walking technique provide multiple advantages over standard walking. These include increased upper body endurance1, increased cardio-respiratory fitness and calorie burning2, and reduced load to lower extremites while walking3.

Today, as co-owner of Urban Poling Inc., a company that distributes Nordic walking poles, Mandy introduces the activity to people of all ages and fitness abilities.

For rehab clients needing assistance with balance and stability, Mandy co-created a second style of pole – the Activator. To design them, she used observed clients using standard walking poles, canes, and walkers, and she asked for input from physiotherapists and occupational therapists. Seven design features – including a bell-shaped tip and a button-lock height adjustment system – make them more effective and safer than standard Nordic walking poles.

“Research shows that good equipment design and proper use reduce the risk of falls associated with walking aids4”, says Mandy. “Our goal was to design walking poles and training programs with safety as our primary focus. Therapists using the Activator poles know that they are of the highest quality, can bear 200 pounds of pressure, and won’t slide. The poles don’t have a wrist strap, because I didn’t want clients attached to the equipment in the event of a stumble or fall. Our training course covers the adjustment of pole height, proper technique, and contraindications.”

Physiotherapists and other health professionals are discovering that the Activator poles have numerous advantages over other, more traditional assistive devices.

“The poles let you offload weight from the hips, knees and spine into the upper body, making it ideal for some clients who have arthritis joints, low back pain, and people who are easing back into activity after surgery,” says Mandy. “But unlike a cane or a wheeled walker, the poles let people stand tall without leaning or hunching forward.”

“The poles are easy to adjust to the correct height for each client, and with proper instruction, people pick up the technique quite easily.

“The technique isn’t overly difficult to learn,” says Jessica Putland of Synergy Physiotherapy in Regina. “After a few sessions, people have it down quite well.” Best of all, she finds the activity is suitable for a whole spectrum of her clients, including those with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and osteoarthritis, plus people who are recovering from injuries and surgery.

“Therapists are enthusiastic because the poles help them met all of the goals they have for their clients – improved core strength, balance, stability and confidence,” says Mandy. “And the poles also promote active living and independence.”

At the Acute Spine Program at Vancouver General Hospital, senior physiotherapist Hilary Jebson and her colleagues have been using the Activators since 2010.

Jebson, who works with patients recovering from spinal surgery, reports that their surgeons love the upright posture the poles provide during rehab. “Walking with the Activators gives patients an erect posture versus the forward flexed posture they get from a wheeled walker,” explains Jebson, who especially appreciates the strapless design and thick ergonomic handle. “The poles also facilitate a normal gait pattern with a heel strike and toe push-off. And pressing down on the base of the handle causes the core muscles to contract and encourages spinal extension.”

Another huge upside of the poles is that they make it easy for clients to transition to an active post-rehab lifestyle.

“The ploes help people to ambulate post-surgery, and then let them transition to using them as a fitness tool once they’re home,” says Jebson. “And because they’ve seen other people using Nordic walking poles in the community, it decreases the perception of disability.”

Ruth Kaplan, a photography professor, had spinal decompression surgery last year. During her recovery, she fell two different times when her cane slid away from her. Her physiotherapist at Toronto’s Lyndhurst Centre introduced her to the Activator poles which she found provided a more stable base of support.

“They allowed me to stand completely upright, and they felt lighter and more secure than my cane,” she says. Today, Kaplan’s back is fully recovered, but she has some numbness in one foot. She continues to use her Activators when walking for extended periods, and on organized hiking trips. She also appreciates that they look sporty, unlike a cane, so she blends in with others who are using hiking poles.

Sylvia Davidson, the occupational therapy practice professional practice chief at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre, was recently introduced to urban poling at a wellness event she hosted for her team. “The staff absolutely loved the workout!” she says. “Several of us now go poling at lunch time, and we’re keen to introduce it to our residents.”


1. Karawan, A., Porcari, J.P., Butts, N.K., Postmus, A.M., Stoughton, L., Larkin J. (1992). Effects of 12 Weeks of Walking or Exerstriding on Upper Body Strength and Endurance. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise: 24: 5.

2. Church T.S., Earnest C.P., Morss G.M. (2002). Field testing of Physiological Responses Associated with Nordic Walking. Res Q Exerc Sport. 73(3): 296-300.

3. Porcari J.P., Hendrickson T.L., Walter P.R., Terry L., Walsko G. (1997) The Physiological Responses to Walking With and Without Power Poles on Treadmill Exercise. Res Q Exerc Sport. 68(2): 161-6.

4. Stevens J., Thomas K., Tech L., Greenspan A. (2009). Unintentional Falls Associated with Walkers and Canes in Older Adults Treated in US Emergency Departments. JAGS. 57(8): 1464-9.

For more information on urban poling, you can visit www.urbanpoling.com