Walking is good exercise, and more and more people are turning to walking to help them get, and stay, fit. But if you really want to take it to the next level, try Nordic walking.
Nordic walking involves propelling yourself forward using specially adapted walking sticks similar in design to ski poles. Think cross-country skiing without the skis – no snow or skis needed.
Invented in Finland by elite cross-country skiers as a way to maintain fitness in the snowless off-season, Nordic walking is an all-weather activity that is inexpensive, low-impact and provides a great cardiovascular and muscular workout.
Super accessible, Nordic walking can be done anywhere, by almost anyone, at nigh on any time. From a few miles in your neighborhood to a full-on scenic adventure in the wide expanse of the countryside; from a gentle, low-key outdoor activity for beginners to a fast-paced, intense workout for more seasoned athletes. And it boasts a bevy of benefits.
Health Benefits of Nordic Walking
Nordic walking takes regular walking and turns it into a rockstar. Walking is all about the legs. But Nordic walking changes all that, transforming walking into a full-blown total body workout.1
The Nordic walking switches on your upper body, actively engaging the muscles of the arms, shoulders, chest, abs and back.2 Translated into numbers, Nordic walking targets a massive 90% of your body’s muscles, compared with walking’s roughly 50%.3 It’s a game changer, with a panoply of benefits.
Nordic walking is a more intense workout compared to regular walking, increasing oxygen use and heart rate by about 20% compared to regular walking. But here’s the clincher, though it is more strenuous and has superior effects on cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal system, it feels as easy as regular walking, and sometimes even easier than that!456
The poles are supportive, making you feel lighter because the effort of walking is shared more evenly between the upper and lower body. It means you exercise harder and are reaping the rewards, but without the discomfort that usually comes with higher-intensity workouts.7 This also makes it an excellent cross-training activity for runners.
The extra muscular activity also means you burn more calories. By some estimates Nordic walking burns up to 67% more calories than regular walking (dependent on Nordic walking technique and type of poles).8 In other words, it’s perfectly placed between walking and running, allowing you to workout (almost) as vigorously as jogging, but without the impact on your joints. 9
Nordic walking builds greater muscle strength in the upper and lower limbs compared to regular walking.12 The poles encourage greater stride length targeting the glutes more, while the arm movement strengthens the muscles of the chest and back, and tones the back of the arms. This low-impact, whole-body activity recruits the deep muscles of the abdomen and pelvic floor muscles. A hallmark of Nordic walking, the slight rotating movement of the upper body, also strengthens the intervertebral discs of the back.13
Nordic walking targets muscles in a holistic and balanced way that encourages symmetry, and evens out muscular imbalances when practicing good technique.
There has been a wide variety of research on the effects of Nordic walking on health and disease, though many of the studies have been relatively small. While more research is needed, regular Nordic walking is generally thought to have a panoply of health benefits.14
Nordic walking may offer additional health benefits over regular walking or conventional cardiovascular rehabilitation programs in people suffering with cardiovascular disease, such as coronary artery disease, heart failure, and stroke.1718
Respiratory disease. In people suffering with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Nordic walking may improve walking distance, breathlessness, and quality of life. Nordic Walking may also improve mood, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are more common in COPD patients and risks factors for re-hospitalisation and poorer outcomes.1920
Chronic pain. This whole-body activity may be helpful in reducing musculoskeletal complaints.21 Nordic walking may relieve chronic neck pain, reduce tenderness in the trapezius muscle (upper back muscle that runs from the base of the skull and extends to the width of the shoulders), and increase shoulder mobility.2223
Using Nordic poles is also thought to help increase balance and stability, and distribute the effort through the arms and torso, thereby taking some of the load off the spine and lower limbs when walking. This may be helpful for those suffering with chronic back pain.242526
Moderate-to-high intensity but with lower levels of perceived exertion and less load on the lower body, Nordic walking may also be a “safe and effective means of regaining functionality and physical fitness” in persons with fibromyalgia.2728
Cancer. Nordic walking is a potentially valuable rehabilitation strategy for women with breast cancer, who often experience impaired shoulder function as a result of treatment (e.g. radiation or removal of lymph nodes in the armpit), which can lead to limitations in daily functioning and decreased quality of life. Nordic walking may have a positive effect on several symptoms, including shoulder mobility, lymphedema, sensitivity to pain, physical fitness, and quality of life.293031
Parkinson’s Disease. The use of Nordic walking poles and the rhythmic movement of the upper body may have a beneficial impact in patients with Parkinson’s Disease. Several studies suggest that Nordic walking can help improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and motor coordination. Positive effects have been observed on walking speed, distance, stride length, gait, postural stability, and quality of life.3233
Nordic walking needs to be practiced regularly to reap its many benefits. Generally, it is recommended that healthy adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular activity per week – or a combination thereof.34
How to Nordic Walk
There is a little learning curve when getting started. Before heading out on your first walk, spend a few easy minutes practicing and perfecting walking with poles. Start off slowly and only pick up your pace when you feel able.
The steps below guide you through proper form and Nordic Walking technique.35
Good posture is the cornerstone of Nordic walking (and everything else really). It will help you to walk further, faster and longer.
Stand straight and walk tall, with a lengthened spine, your chest out, and your core “engaged”. Your shoulders should be wide, down and relaxed; your chin parallel with the ground and your ears aligned above your shoulders. Imagine a string attached your head gently pulling it upwards.
Lift your toes up and strike the ground with your heel, then roll forward over the mid-foot and push off with your toes to propel your body forward. As you roll onto your toes, your heel should come off the ground. If someone were standing behind you, they should be able to see the soles of your shoes as you push off from your toes.
When you push off with your toes (imagine squeezing a lemon under the ball of your feet), it should engage your glutes and the muscles of the back of your legs.
- Advanced. When walking, lean slightly forward from your ankles, almost as though you are leaning into a strong wind. This helps you to better push off from your toes, increases momentum and speed, and activates the core muscles. Do not bend from the waist or round the back.
The Arm Swing
As we walk naturally, our arms swing in natural opposition to our legs – the right arm meets our left leg and our left arm meets our right leg. Nordic walking is based completely on this natural walking rhythm. Swing from the shoulder and allow your elbow to bend naturally (slight bend as your arm swings forward).
Don’t overthink it. Practice the walk and arm swing until it feels completely natural. So far, these are simply techniques for walking correctly – be it regular or Nordic walking. Nordic walking only harnesses the power of this movement, it doesn’t change it.
- Advanced. As you get more proficient, swing your arm as far behind your body as you do in front. Your arm swing should extend behind your body, not come to a halt at your side. The goal is for your arm to extend backward and finish in a straight line running from the tip of the pole to your shoulder.
- Advanced. Slightly twist the upper body from side to side, to aid swinging the arms forward. Rotating the torso slightly to the right naturally moves the left arm forward.
Start with a practice exercise. To learn to co-ordinate the arm and leg rhythm, perform the following exercise. Strap on the poles, but essentially pretend that they are not there and let the poles drag behind you on the ground as you walk.
Focus on co-ordinating the arm and leg rhythm and swinging your arms from the shoulders – while keeping relatively relaxed! The upper arms should be close to your side, but not clamped to your body.
As you practice, notice the angle that the poles hang as they drag behind you. They should be at an angle of approximately 45º.
How to Plant the Poles
Now, practice actively planting the poles in the ground. Plant the pole in the vicinity of your back foot at about a 45º angle, approximately parallel with your back leg. The right pole should hit the ground at the same time as your left foot – and vice versa. As you walk, maintain the poles at roughly the same angle (45º) throughout.
To grip the pole correctly, gently close your entire hand around the handle.
How to Push the Poles
Once you’ve mastered planting the poles correctly, it’s time to learn how to use them to give you power and momentum. As you plant the pole in the ground, push down and back through the strap to help propel you forward.
The top of the back of your arms (triceps muscle) should be doing most of the work. Pushing through more firmly will increase pace (and calorie burn).
Your grip on the pole should not overly tight otherwise you may end up with tired hands and sore wrists. Your hand functions as more of a guide. The work is done by pushing through the strap, not by gripping.
- Advanced. Once you have mastered the basic Nordic walking skills, develop your hand technique. Continually grip and release the pole. Grip the pole each time it swings forwards. Release your grip on the pole as it swings backwards, pushing down with the heel of your hand through the wrist strap towards the tip of the pole with your hands open.
As you get to the finishing point of your backward arm swing, “throw” the pole behind you. Catch the handle as the pole recoils and your arm swings forwards. This allows you to transition smoothly from the backward swing to the forward swing, and gives you momentum. As your arm swings forward keep your knuckles pointing down and pretend you’re reaching to shake someone’s hand.
That’s the goal. However, when getting started, don’t focus too much on the hands. Simply keep loose contact with the pole as you push it back.
Once you feel comfortable walking with your poles, it’s time to go a little further afield. Be conservative with your first few walks. Start with a few reasonably short walks and increase the distance as you become accustomed to this new way of walking.
Nordic walking comes into its own when you head out of the city and into the countryside. At the beginning keep to well-trodden paths and pavements. Then gradually progress to more uneven and challenging surfaces such as wooded trails, coastal footpaths and steeper inclines, where he poles also serve to help you overcome challenging terrain and provide balance.
Nordic Walking Equipment
How to Choose Nordic Walking Poles
Nordic walking poles are similar to trekking poles, but boast wrist straps and metal tips with removable angled rubber “paws” (covers) to facilitate good grip on hard surfaces such as roads and pavements. Poles vary in weight (the lighter the better) and may be fixed length or adjustable. Fixed length poles tend to be lighter and vibrate less.
The length of the pole is key, affecting technique and the amount of propulsion you gain from pushing off.36 Your poles should feel like they are extensions of your arms and it is important that they are the right length for you.
To determine the correct pole size, stand straight, with your upper arms relaxed by your sides. Your elbows should be bent about 90º when you are holding the handle, with pole vertical and the tip on the ground.
Another way to calculate the correct pole size is with a formula. Optimal pole length falls between the following range:37
- Your height in centimeters multiplied by 0.66 (lower end)
- Your height in centimeters multiplied by 0.7 (higher end)
Fine tune the height of your poles for maximum effectiveness and comfort. If you are between sizes and a beginner, opt the shorter pole, as it will allow more fluid movement.
Beginners tend to change posture as they learn to Nordic walk and progress in their technique, which can affect optimal pole length. Therefore, if you can, buy adjustable poles and reassess pole length about once a month as you learn and perfect your technique.38
Sturdy, supportive and cushioned walking shoes will make your walking experience more comfortable. The soles you should be flexible to allow you to push off with your toes, and have good grip. Walking shoes are lighter than boots and allow the ankle to flex.
If you are going to be hitting the rough trails of the great outdoors in all weathers, make sure your footwear is waterproof and breathable, and matched with a well-fitting pair of socks.
Nordic walking is an outdoor sport so you should dress for the elements. Also allow for the fact that you will get warmer as your workout progresses. Ideally you should dress in layers so you can peel off items of clothing as you get warmer. To keep dry and comfortable, the layer closest to your skin (base layer) should be made from breathable fabric that wicks moisture (sweat) away from the body.
Bring a thin, breathable waterproof jacket just in case of rain. If you are heading out into possibly inclement weather, make sure you have warm, dry clothing with you in your backpack.
Backpacks allow you to carry water or extra clothing, which is particularly important for longer walks. A slightly narrow backpack helps prevent you from catching it with your elbow every time you swing your arms.
Remember to warm-up before and cool-down after your walks and drink sufficient water before, during and after your walking workouts to prevent dehydration.
Nordic walking is an excellent full-body exercise that gets you out of your house, away from the gym and into the great outdoors. It combines an effective workout with the opportunity to unplug from technology and enjoy nature. It’s not only a fantastic form of exercise for your body, but a great stress-reducer and wonderful for mind and spirit.
Consider getting some lessons in the correct use of your poles from a qualified Nordic walking instructor. There are numerous Nordic walking clubs that offer everything from beginner courses and regular weekly walks to full-on Nordic walking holidays.