Step this way: Nordic walking helps to ease Parkinson's 

A husband-and-wife team - one an Everest veteran, the other a retired nurse - runs special walking courses for people with Parkinson’s disease. Lorna Siggins meets a determined group of walkers at a training session in Dublin   
Step this way: Nordic walking helps to ease Parkinson's 

Tony and Joanne Burke of Nordic Fitness Ireland. Photograph Moya Nolan

Amid carpets of cowslip and primroses, beneath beech, oak and giant redwood trees, a determined group of walkers tackle a hill under Dublin’s Three Rock mountain.

“Small steps, slow it down, swing your arms,” says mountaineer, runner and Everest veteran Tony Burke, gently reminding the group that this is not a competition.

It may feel like that for each of the participants – competing against oneself, being the toughest contest of all.

More impressive still is that the walkers and their companions in south Dublin’s Cabinteely Park have Parkinson’s disease.

Yvonne Lowe loved hiking with An Óige, lived for the outdoors, and was a high achiever in athletics.

“I ran marathons, won all-Ireland aerobics body-building competitions in my day, and then my world was turned upside down,” she says, recalling her Parkinson’s diagnosis two years ago at 57.

“It is difficult, and I’m still coming to terms with it, but I really enjoy coming here to Cabinteely Park over the past four weeks,” Lowe says.

“It is not as easy as it looks, and getting the technique right to get to that level of fitness is a challenge,” she says. “However, I am able to get out again... I am excited about it, and it is really for me.

“The mood after being out in the fresh air and getting to talk to people who are in the same boat as you is all part of it.”

Shane Breslin, also from Dublin, is an expert in martial arts and is striding along with his Nordic walking poles, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

“I suffer from young-onset [early onset] Parkinson’s, and probably only about 400 to 500 people in the country have it,” Breslin says.

“One of the things people probably don’t realise about Parkinson’s is that you lose your balance often,” he says. “Having the Nordic poles is very good for balance. Also, you might find after a diagnosis that you are not walking as much because your muscles tighten up and you shuffle a lot. Again the poles will tend to alleviate that.

“It means you are getting better walking posture, and you are using your arm muscles as well as your leg muscles. So you are getting great exercise as well as being able to go further and do more.”

Benefit of repeated movements

 Tony Burke, of Nordic Fitness Ireland training members of the Dublin branch of Parkinson's Ireland in nordic walking in Cabinteely Park, Dublin. Photograph: Moya Nolan
Tony Burke, of Nordic Fitness Ireland training members of the Dublin branch of Parkinson's Ireland in nordic walking in Cabinteely Park, Dublin. Photograph: Moya Nolan

Developed by a Finnish gym teacher named Leena Jääskeläinen in 1966, Nordic walking involves using a specially designed ski pole to propel the body forward. Swinging both arms and legs is said to encourage lightness of foot by taking the weight off the knees and lower body joints.

Peer-reviewed research has shown that the focus on posture and gait and repetitive movements is an invaluable activity for those with Parkinson’s.

Repeated movements drive neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and adapt due to experience.

It takes approximately 60,000 repetitions for a neural pathway informing a new action to become automatic. A one-kilometre walk in Nordic style involves about 500 arm swings on each side.

Using two poles increases ability, provides a coordination challenge, improves upper and lower limb strength and benefits bone density.

When the group’s tutors Tony and Joanne Burke set up Nordic Fitness Ireland in 2018 in Co Clare, studies already showed the extensive benefits of the activity.

Tony Burke, a member of the first Irish expedition to Everest in 1993, is an experienced climber and mountaineer who took up running in the Alps after the age of 50.

“I used to use trekking poles and would watch these runners in France and Italy flying up the hill with special Nordic walking poles and gloves,” he recalls.

“They explained to me that they had learned to Nordic walk, and it helped them move faster and quicker with better upper body strength.”

He and Joanne decided to learn the technique and then train as instructors on courses accredited by the global body, the International Nordic Walking Federation.

Joanne admits she had been a little sceptical at first but was won over after her first lesson.

“People in the group had strokes, had coordination difficulties, there were people in their 70s, Tony was running ultra-marathons, and I was training for a marathon at the time. I felt this was an amazing activity that can help lots of people,” she says.

After retiring from a long career in nursing, Joanne decided they should set up their own training company. They have taught more than 400 people in Ireland to date.

Walking with confidence

 Tony, centre, and Joanne Burke, 2nd left, of Nordic Fitness Ireland training members of the Dublin branch of Parkinson's Ireland in nordic walking in Cabinteely Park, Dublin. Photograph: Moya Nolan
Tony, centre, and Joanne Burke, 2nd left, of Nordic Fitness Ireland training members of the Dublin branch of Parkinson's Ireland in nordic walking in Cabinteely Park, Dublin. Photograph: Moya Nolan

Mary Butler, chairperson of the Dublin branch of the Parkinson’s Association of Ireland, heard how Nordic walking could benefit those with the condition and approached the Burkes to provide tuition.

“It is a proven fact that exercise helps hold back symptoms of Parkinson’s – it is not a cure - and gives people the ability to walk with confidence,” she says.

The course in Cabinteely Park was run as a pilot, and Martina Farrell, who trained with the Burkes in Clare, assisted with the tuition. She established Boyne Nordic Walks with Valerie Leddy in Co Louth almost a year ago.

The four-week course began with assessments of the participants by phone.

“The first lesson involved introducing ourselves, along with a general introduction to the biomechanics of the technique,” Tony says.

“Each participant was provided with Nordic poles and was invited to set an individual goal, or series of goals over the duration of the training,” he says.

“We don’t like to define people by their condition, so we apply the same sequence and approach to everyone we teach.”

The Burkes plan to build networks and run a taster session with people affected by strokes in Limerick. They offer individual tuition in Clare for those who might find it more beneficial than a group setting.

“We don’t make false promises, but the earlier people start, the more benefits they will accrue,” Tony says.

“This works for everyone, whether you are 90 or with Parkinson’s or running 100 miles across the Alps.”

Yvonne Lowe is hooked on Nordic walking now that she has completed the training.

“I am not going to let this condition beat me – if I am one step ahead of it, I am winning.”

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