You expect to see cross-country skiers using poles while gliding along wooded trails and hikers often use poles to navigate tough terrain but it’s less common to incorporate poles into a walking workout. Malin Svensson, fitness expert and president of Nordic Body, Inc., cites the “dork factor” as the reason walking with poles — called Nordic walking — hasn’t caught on in the United States.
“A lot of people shy away from it because they think, ‘I’m not walking with poles; I’ll look ridiculous,” she says. “Once you try Nordic walking, all the feelings of silliness go out the window.”
As its name suggests, Nordic walking was popularized in Nordic countries where skiing is a popular pastime. Research shows that incorporating poles into your walking workout offers several advantages over a conventional walking program.
Here are three reasons to try Nordic walking:
1. EASE CHRONIC PAIN
A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation studied 91 adults with chronic pain and found that a 12-week Nordic walking program helped ease pain in their low backs, hips and knees.
Svensson says the poles help distribute body weight, easing the stress on the lower body.
Walking with poles also engages the upper body, including the arms, shoulders, chest and stomach. Strengthening those muscles helps improve posture, lessening the strain on the hips, knees and low back, according to the study.
2. IMPROVE BALANCE
Downhill skiers and hikers use poles to improve their balance on uneven terrain. Even on a flat surface like a sidewalk, walking poles can provide essential stability to those who struggle with balance issues due to medical conditions or injuries.
One study found that Nordic walking led to significant improvements in balance and functional mobility among older adults.
“Those with mobility challenges find that the poles can provide additional support, allowing them to walk longer, faster and safer,” notes Wendy Harmening, NASM-certified personal trainer and founder of Chicago-based North Shore Nordic Walking.
Harmening also notes that walking poles provide additional stability when walking on snow, ice or other irregular terrain by reducing the risk of falls.
3. BURN MORE CALORIES
Engaging your arms during walking workouts amps up your energy expenditure, burning more calories.
Research shows that Nordic walking burns up to 20% more calories than regular walking and a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that using poles to navigate hills helped burn up to 67 percent more calories.
The intense calorie burn is the reason Harmening recommends Nordic walking to walkers who want to take their walking workouts to the next level.
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GETTING STARTED WITH NORDIC WALKING
Before grabbing a pair of poles and hitting the sidewalk, follow these essential tips for getting the most from a Nordic walking workout:
- Pick the right poles: Just as a racing bike isn’t right for a mountain bike course, trekking poles are not meant for Nordic walking. Look for lightweight walking poles and choose either adjustable poles or a fixed-length design appropriate for your height.
- Learn the proper technique: Svensson compares correct Nordic walking technique to cross-country skiing without the snow, noting, “You use the poles to propel your body forward.” The correct form requires walking at a comfortable pace, arms almost straight and swinging from the shoulders; plant the tip of the pole toward the ground at an angle and push down and back while taking a step forward.
- Take a class: Learning from a pro improves your skill. “An instructor can coach you and critique your technique can help you make corrections and make sure you’re getting the safest and most effective use out of walking with poles,” Harmening says.