Adding a pair of poles can transform your standard stroll into a calorie-blasting, strength-building workout.
Any experienced walker is familiar with its many health benefits, including less stress, lower blood pressure, and better brain health. But what if we told you that one simple change could turn your normal walk into a total-body strength and cardio workout that's still easy on the joints?
It’s true. By just adding a pair of poles, Nordic walking takes your standard stroll to a whole new level.
What Exactly Is Nordic Walking?
Think of Nordic walking as cross-country skiing but without the snow or skis. You mimic the motion of cross-country skiing by using specially made poles to propel yourself as you walk along trails or sidewalks.
Nordic walking isn’t new. It started in Finland in the early 20th century, but it’s recently gained popularity around the globe, says Bernd Zimmermann. He’s the founder and president of the American Nordic Walking Association. The workout style is especially popular among older adults — and for good reason. Read on to learn why, plus how you can get started.
4 Benefits of Nordic Walking for Older Adults
Nordic walking offers a few advantages over many other forms of cardio, including walking without poles.
Benefit #1: It’s Easier on the Joints — But Still Gets Your Heart Pumping
Walking has always been a great low-impact option. "It's not stressful like running, because you don't have the side effects of the steady pounding on your joints," Zimmermann says. But research shows that walking with Nordic poles may reduce the pressure on your lower body - particularly your knees - more than walking without poles. That makes it an excellent cardio option if you deal with joint pain or you're recovering from an injury (with your doctor's approval, of course).
Concerned the poles will slow you down? Don’t worry: The same study found that people who used walking poles moved faster than pole-free walkers, which means you’ll get a better cardiovascular workout, says Karen Asp. She’s an ACE-certified personal trainer who holds two world records in Nordic walking.
Benefit #2: It Burns More Calories
While standard walking mainly works your body from the hips down, the Nordic version requires help from the upper body too. "That means you'll get a bigger calorie burn with the poles," Asp says.
In fact, research from The Cooper Institute in Dallas found that Nordic walking can burn up to 20 percent more calories than regular walking at the same speed because it involves multiple muscle groups.
Benefit #3: It Strengthens Your Upper Body
Speaking of involving more muscle groups, every time you propel your body through the Nordic walking poles, it engages the muscles of the upper body - especially those in the upper back, chest, shoulders, triceps, and core. You don't get that benefit from traditional walking, Asp says.
Maintaining upper-body strength is especially important as you age. Those muscles are essential for everyday activities such as pushing up out of a chair and carrying heavy grocery bags or luggage with ease.
Benefit #4: It Offers Greater Stability
Nordic walking can be an excellent activity for older adults with balance issues, Asp says. Traditional walking offers only two points of contact with the ground, but Nordic walking offers four. Just keep in mind that Nordic walking poles don't work as a substitute for canes or walkers, Zimmermann adds.
Ready to Try Nordic Walking? Start Here.
The first thing you need to do is buy or borrow a set of poles specifically designated for Nordic walking. "You can't use your ski or hiking poles," Asp says. In the same way that you wouldn't use a basketball to play volleyball, even though they're both technically balls, you wouldn't use ski or hiking poles to go Nordic walking.
Nordic walking poles come in two styles: adjustable and fixed length. "The benefit with adjustable poles is that multiple people can use the same ones," Asp says. "Plus, if you find that you're between pole lengths, you have the option to try both and see which is best." But fixed-length poles tend to be more rigid, which offers more stability.
Whichever option you choose, make sure they're the right length for your height. You can easily check this by standing up straight and holding the wrist straps (also called gauntlets) with the tip of each pole touching the ground. If your elbow makes a 90-degree angle with your forearm parallel to the ground, you have the right length.
Once you have your poles, watch some Nordic walking tutorials (the American Nordic Walking Association offers many resources). Or take a beginner’s course to become familiar with the technique. “You can have the best poles, but if you don’t know how to use them, it’s a waste of time and energy,” Zimmermann says.
Nordic walking may feel a bit awkward at first, but that's normal. Asp says many people "forget" how to walk once they add poles because they're not used to having them attached to their hands. "The important thing to remember is that it's just like regular walking in that you move your opposite leg with your opposite arm," she says.
When you're just getting started, it may help to simply drag the poles behind you while you walk. Once you get the hang of that, start pushing through the rubber tips on the ends of each pole at the same time. Finally, extend your forward-moving arm as you reach with your pole, "almost as if you're about to shake somebody's hand," Asp says. After you push (aka step forward), extend that hand behind your hips and reach forward with the opposite arm.
Once you’re comfortable with the poles, you can experiment with speed, time, or intensity (such as making your arm movements even bigger). Just like regular walking, there are many ways to keep your Nordic walking workout feeling fresh and effective.
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