My wife and I spent the recent holiday weekend in California, for a family birthday celebration. The negative side of the trip was that my wife picked up the COVID-19 virus on our way home. Whereas, on the positive side, we took several hikes with family and friends during which many of the participants used Nordic walking poles, which is something I have rarely seen around home.
Nordic walking is a Finnish-origin total-body version of walking that can be done as a sport using specially designed walking poles similar to ski poles.
Nordic walking was first formally defined in a publication in 1979. The concept was developed as an offshoot of warm-season ski-training using ski poles. Subsequently, poles were specially designed and marketed to fitness walkers with the term “Nordic Walking” coined and popularized in 1999, though some just call it pole walking.
Compared to regular walking, Nordic walking involves applying force to the poles with each stride. Nordic walkers use more of their upper body resulting in significant increases in heart rate at a given pace. Nordic walking has been estimated as producing up to a 46% increase in energy consumption, compared to walking without poles.
Nordic walking poles are significantly shorter than those recommended for cross-country skiing. They come in one-piece, non-adjustable shaft versions or in telescoping two- or three-piece twist-locking versions of adjustable length.
As with many trekking poles, Nordic walking poles come with removable rubber tips for use on hard surfaces and hardened metal tips for trails, the beach, snow, and ice. Special walking shoes are not required, although there are shoes being marketed as specifically designed for the sport.
A recent Canadian study noted that Nordic walking was significantly better at improving functional capacity than were moderate- to vigorous-intensity continuous training and high-intensity interval training in a randomized controlled trial.
Participants who did Nordic walking saw better improvements in functional capacity, measured by the six-minute walk test distances, than did individuals doing either of the other exercise strategies.
From baseline to 26 weeks, the average changes in six-minute walk test distance were 182 feet and 196 feet for moderate- to vigorous-intensity continuous training and high-intensity interval training, respectively, but 309 feet in the Nordic walking group.
Previous research looked at these results at the end of a 12-week supervised exercise intervention and showed similar improvements suggesting that Nordic walking had greater sustained effects even after the observation phase from 12 to 26 weeks.
We know that exercise is good for us and when people ask what the best exercise is, the best exercise is one that the person is going to do.
Nordic walking adds an additional option that many people might not have thought about. For many people who have musculoskeletal issues with posture, gait, or balance, using the poles can be a way to allow them to walk much better and increase their speed, thereby improving their fitness.
The study examined patients with coronary artery disease who underwent cardiac revascularization. They were then referred by their physicians to cardiac rehabilitation.
From baseline to 26 weeks, participants saw significantly better outcomes in quality of life, depression symptoms, as well as their six-minute walk test.
The people I was hiking with did not specifically call what they were doing “Nordic walking”. Since they kept talking about cross-country skiing, I thought they were just trying to emulate that activity to keep in shape for that winter sport, which they were.
But I thought that the poles were more of a nuisance for them during the hike except to intermittently assist with balance and support.
After reading this research, I realize that I underestimated the potential benefits of the walking poles.
I am still torn between the idea of adding more equipment (and expense) to my walking activity versus gleaning the additional benefit of more upper body activity.
Aside from all of that, the addition of walking poles might make me look even goofier than usual when I go out to get some exercise.