EASTHAM — Back in June, 11 curious locals holding trekking poles fashioned from flimsy driveway markers joined Carla Fogaren for a walk around Kent’s Point in Orleans. Six months later, more than 850 people are members of the Cape Cod Nordic Walking group, roaming trails and soft sand from the Sagamore Bridge to the National Seashore. Most of them use real walking poles now.
Fogaren, a 59-year-old health-care consultant who lives in Harwich Port and Hingham, is the dynamo behind the local “norking” movement and a certified instructor in the sport. Its roots are in Finland, where in the 1970s it was the latest in off-season training for cross-country skiers. Norking has been gaining steam ever since as a fitness trend embraced by people of all ages and abilities.
Norking isn’t just walking with sticks. Fogaren asks that all participants attend one of her twice-weekly clinics for beginners at Brooks Park in Harwich where she teaches the mechanics of incorporating the upper and lower body in a well-coordinated motion.
The technique improves fitness because it engages more of the body than ordinary walking does. According to Harvard Medical School cardiologist Aaron Baggish, Nordic walking engages 80 to 90 percent of a walker’s muscles as opposed to 50 percent with regular walking. It not only burns more calories than regular walking but is associated with health benefits ranging from lowering cholesterol to decreasing depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.
In the windy parking lot of Nauset Light Beach in Eastham on a November afternoon, Michelle Pollard said that she pushed herself to try something new after losing her husband of 49 years. She now joins four or five walks a month and likes the camaraderie as much as she does the exercise.
Pollard was there for a moonrise walk led by Eastham resident Sue Moynihan, a recently retired National Park ranger who spent 24 of her 40 years in the Park Service on the Outer Cape. Moynihan is one of seven or eight walkers who have become leaders since the group has grown beyond Fogaren’s ability to attend each of the two or three treks happening weekly all over the Cape.
Moynihan was among those at Fogaren’s first event, the walk at Kent’s Point. The timing was perfect, she said. She had just retired, she said, “and I was worried I would end up on the couch watching endless reruns of Grey’s Anatomy.”
That probably wasn’t a realistic worry, she admitted. “We’ve got the gold mine right here,” she said. “There’s so much to explore. You just can’t turn off the ranger in someone when they’ve been doing it so long.”
Moynihan’s ranger training helps her lead walks that avoid fragile areas. “I’m careful on the Seashore walks,” she said. “We don’t go off-trail.”
Eastham resident and first-time norker Sue Brady is a frequent beach walker who joined the moonrise walk for the company. She said that she probably wouldn’t have gone out for an evening walk on her own. She was attracted by the affordability of the expedition, too. There’s no charge for joining, and Fogaren even supplies loaner poles so people can decide whether they’re going to keep it up before investing in their own.
Fogaren says norking can be adapted for walkers at every fitness level. Walks range from just over a mile on the paved surface of the Cape Cod Rail Trail to three or four miles on uneven terrain at Nauset Marsh or Fort Hill.
“People walk at their own speed,” she said. “No one holds anybody up, and you’re never left behind because there’s always someone walking at your pace.”
The group includes walkers who range in age from 20- to 80-something. Some live with health challenges. The poles provide extra stability, taking pressure off the joints. And Fogaren said she has seen Nordic walking help people with Parkinson’s disease achieve a more efficient gait.
One category of people missing in the group is men. Charles Sheehan of South Yarmouth confirmed that he’s often the token male. The fit 74-year-old is unfazed.
Maybe those who don’t join in just don’t get it, he said. “We’re not dorks — we’re norks.”
A sense of humor comes in handy for Nordic walkers, who are often objects of curiosity, and sometimes ribbing. When people drive by and ask, “Where’s the snow?” norkers have the perfect come back: “Where are your poles?”
Interested walkers can connect with Cape Cod Nordic Walking only by requesting membership in the group’s private Facebook page.