Have you been thinking about motivating yourself to do some exercise? You recently watched a group of seniors walking with poles. It seemed an odd sight, walking with ski poles in seasons with no snow. You discover that this form of walking is known as Nordic walking. Nordic walking is currently being promoted in seniors centres as a safe and very effective exercise, particularly suited to seniors.
What is Nordic walking?
Nordic walking is a type of walking using poles that look similar to those used in cross country skiing. This form of walking exercise originated in Finland where it was developed as a summer conditioning program for cross-country skiers. It quickly became popular not only in the Scandinavian countries, but in Europe and more recently in North America. This type of walking is also called 'urban poling' or 'exersliding'. The sports industry noticed this form of outdoor exercise and developed different types of poles to be used for this type of walking exercise.
Nordic walking involves not only the muscles from your lower body but also those from your arms and upper back in order to move the poles. The swinging motion of the poles and your legs will feel natural once you get the motion of the poles right. Learning to use the poles properly takes a little practice. The aim is to develop a rhythm that works best for you. While walking, one uses one's arms to help push forward when taking a stride. This is similar to cross-country skiing, where the poles are placed behind you as you move forward.
What are the benefits of Nordic walking relative to regular walking?
Nordic exercise is currently being promoted as a form of walking exercise that has greater benefits than regular walking. The research showing the benefits and advantages of Nordic walking is increasing in both healthy individuals and for people with chronic conditions. When compared with regular walking, the scientific evidence suggests that Nordic walking has additional benefits because it:
- Provides a greater total body workout because the arms and upper body are being used with the poles
- Increased cardiac fitness workout from 8% - 23% (1)
- Burns more calories than regular walking (2)
- Is perceived as less strenuous (1)
A recent study demonstrated that Nordic walking provided the best overall fitness (including cardiovascular fitness and strength and flexibility) relative to usual walking, resistance training or no exercise in community dwelling seniors (3). It is likely that the use of poles decreases the impact on joints in the legs. However, pilot research suggests that there is no difference on the forces in the knee joints between Nordic or regular walking (4).
There are several other advantages attributed to Nordic walking in the popular media, for example, improving balance, decreasing pain and muscle tension in the neck and shoulder region. However, the research to support these additional claims has not yet been undertaken. While the research is ongoing, we ought not to forget that Nordic walking at the very least still has the benefits of regular walking. These include physical and mental health benefits.
What is the potential for injuries when Nordic walking?
There is limited research on injuries associated with Nordic walking. In one study (5) 137 healthy experienced Nordic walkers were surveyed about injuries. The mostly middle-aged Nordic walkers logging over 29,000 hours of walking, showed rates of injuries that were less than 1 per 1000 hours of training. The most common injury reported by Nordic walkers is a strain of the ligament on the inside of the thumb after falling (0.2 per 1000 hours). The most serious injury was a shoulder dislocation related to a fall. Overall, the rates of injuries are very low compared to other sports such as individual running (11 injuries per 1000 hours) or team squash (14 injuries per 1000 hours) (6;7). Rates of injury for Nordic walking are lower than those for individual walking (2 injuries per 1000 hours) or cycling (4 injuries per 1000 hours) (6;7).
Who should participate in Nordic walking?
Nordic walking can be enjoyed by almost all people (young and old, healthy and with chronic diseases). Nordic walking shows some very promising results in people with chronic health conditions. Some studies have shown advantages of Nordic walking compared to regular walking or specialized exercise programs in people with the following conditions (1;6;8):
- peripheral vascular disease (bad cramping of your leg muscles when exercising)
- cardiovascular disease
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Nordic walking, like regular walking, is a safe and effective form of exercise in people with chronic conditions.
Where should you Nordic walk?
Nordic walking can be undertaken in a variety of settings, including urban and outdoor locations. The findings from a small study in experienced female Nordic walkers showed that there were small to no differences in energy consumption across different surfaces. So it may not really matter if you walk on concrete, grass or artificial track, as you will generally consume the same amount of energy (9).
Does the height or weight of the poles matter?
There are a lot of different types of poles as well as advice about how to determine the correct or optimal length when using them. Most Nordic walkers select the length of their poles based on preference rather than science. There is limited research in this area, but one small laboratory study suggests that shorter or self-selected pole length makes very little difference (3% in uphill walking) in your energy expenditure (10). The middle-aged Nordic walkers in this study rated different pole lengths (self-selected height and 15 cm shorter) as equally comfortable (10). Another small study examined the impact of adding weight to the poles in young female Nordic walkers. This study showed that there was no important difference in the amount of energy used when using heavier weighted poles (up to 1.5 kilograms) relative to normal weight poles (11). We should note that both these studies were done in laboratory settings in small numbers of people. Currently, we don't know for sure that the height or weight of the polls cause you to have a better workout when Nordic walking. More research is needed.
What special equipment do I need for Nordic walking?
Some equipment companies would claim that there are important differences in the poles one could purchase to use while Nordic walking. Although, we don't have much research yet to help us compare any advantages between poles, there are a few things to consider. The first is that Nordic walking poles are not the same as the poles used for hiking (sometimes called trekking poles). Hiking poles tend to be much taller than Nordic walking poles; they are usually placed out front of the body to maximize stability and balance. In contrast, Nordic poles have straps around your wrist that allow you to grip and release the pole so that it is easier to push down on the pole. Nordic poles are used in such a way that the tip (usually made of rubber) points behind you as push down on the poles when you walk. There are several useful websites that can provide more details about the correct motions to use when Nordic walking from the International Nordic Walking Association (12) and the Canadian Nordic Walking Association (13).
Bottom line about Nordic walking
Nordic walking involves not only the muscles from your lower body but also those from your arms and upper back in order to move the poles. It is a safe and effective exercise for healthy older adults and in people with chronic health conditions. The research is still ongoing but suggests some advantages relative to regular walking. These additional benefits stem from the use of the poles, which engage your arms and upper back. This results in a better body workout.