Upgrade your walk to a full-body workout

Ever seen walkers toting poles around the neighbourhood and wondered what on earth they are doing? No, they’re not pretending to cross-country ski — although these sports do share common roots. People of all ages and abilities are getting a better workout with Nordic pole walking.

We’re all familiar with the health benefits of a good walk, like boosting our moods and energy and helping lose weight. On a more practical note, the activity is inexpensive and it’s an exercise most people can manage without lessons, a lot of equipment or special facilities. However, walking isn’t the most vigorous of activities compared to aerobics or sports, and some people have dropped walking altogether because they need more support and stability.

Enter Nordic pole walking. As the name suggests, the trend got its start in Finland as a way for cross country skiers to train in the off season. The trend has been around a while, but has spread from Europe to North America in more recent years. Also known as urban pole walking, exerstriding or ski walking, the activity involves fitness walking with specially designed poles tipped with little rubber “booties” for most terrain from sidewalks to trails (plus metal tips for softer terrain). With each step you take, your opposite arm comes forward with the pole in hand.

You might think it looks a little silly — and it might feel a little awkward at first — but those poles can make a big difference. You’ll find you are using your arms more — a key component to getting your heart rate up and getting more oxygen to your cells. One 2001 study found that Nordic walking increased calorie expenditure and oxygen consumption by about 20 per cent.

However, you won’t feel like you’re working that much harder. If you’re looking to obtain or maintain a healthy weight, you’ll see more gains for your time and effort. Some research also suggests that Nordic pole walking offers an even bigger boost to mood and energy levels compared to walking.

Of course, the heart isn’t the only muscle to benefit. Studies have also shown an improvement in range of motion in the arms and shoulders, plus you’re working some muscles that don’t get a lot of use with normal walking. According to some research, regular walking uses about 70 per cent of your muscle mass while Nordic walking takes you up to 90 per cent.

Because you’re working more muscles, you’re burning more calories and keeping insulin levels lower. If you thought that 20 per cent sounded impressive, some studies say the calorie burning benefit is actually in the 25-46 per cent range. In short, you could burn up to 450 calories an hour with Nordic pole walking versus about 280 for normal walking.

And while the poles aren’t walking aids like a cane or walker, they do offer stability and balance — especially for older adults. The poles can help “take the edge off” exercising with certain conditions like arthritis by reducing impact — often by up to 26 per cent over normal walking. People report being to walk faster and farther with Nordic pole walking.

Need to see it in action? Check out this demonstration:

As you might expect, there are some costs involved. Like walking, you’ll need a good pair of shoes and weather-appropriate clothing, but you’ll also need a set of poles —  which can run $50 to $150 per pair. Whether you’re shopping online or in the store, make sure you’ll looking at the right product — trekking poles and skiing poles won’t do. Poles come in different designs, and some are made specifically for rehabilitation.

Look for good quality materials and a comfortable grip, and make sure you get the right size for your height. (You might need a little expert help here.) You can also find adjustable or telescoping poles — perfect if you need to make adjustments or plan to share. Some poles are even designed for travel. 

What else should you consider? Depending on where you buy, accessories could be included in the purchase price or sold separately. You may want different wrist straps, a carrying bag, extra boots and “snow baskets” (an attachment that lets you use your poles in the snow.) Some poles also come with instructional materials like DVDs or books. If you can’t find a store in your area, you can order online from places like Mountain Equipment Co-op and UrbanPoling.com.

Another cost you may want to include is lessons from a qualified instructor. There is a bit of a learning curve with Nordic pole walking, and an expert can make sure you’ve got the proper technique and posture.

In addition, many areas now have Nordic walking clubs or groups that meet on a regular basis. Classes and groups may be held through your local recreation centre or offered privately. You may even want to attend a demonstration or class before buying a set of poles.

Nordic pole walking isn’t for everyone, and it’s important take the research with a grain of salt as everyone will experience different results. Researching into the benefits for specific issues like obesity, rehabilitation, arthritis and fibromyalgia is ongoing, including some studies here at Canadian universities.

When in doubt, talk to your doctor or physiotherapist before undertaking any exercise program.

For more information about Nordic walking and where to find classes in your area, visit:
Nordixx — Nordic Walking Canada

Additional sources: About.com: Nordic Walking, Intraspec.ca, NordicWalkingOnline.com

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jaap Hart

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