How do you make a walk into a super-workout? Add poles. How do you make it seem easier? Add poles. Nordic walking poles, that is.
You might even feel like you are flying. Nordic poles can bring relief to walkers who struggle with sore knees, hips, or lower back. And for everyone, they make walking seem easier while you are actually working out harder.
Skiing on Grass
Walking with sticks has a history. Sometime around the 1600’s the shepherd’s crook turned into the walking stick for fashionable gentleman. Hikers have always enjoyed a “staff” to lean on like Moses. So, Nordic walking poles may look like the next step in the evolution of the old walking stick. But they’re something else altogether.
Nordic walkers resemble ski poles, and that, not the walking stick, is their real heritage.
In the early 20thcentury, Finnish cross-country skiers began using their regular ski poles, in pairs, to continue training during summer walks when the snow was gone.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a few trainers and physical education teachers took this idea and began looking into these long poles as an all-around fitness tool.
They are that.
Even Taking It Easy, You Burn More Calories
The average person using Nordic walking poles increases her calorie burn by 10-20% compared to walking without poles, according to Mayo Clinic. But that’s not the only benefit.
The Nordixx company, which makes poles and helped develop Nordic walking as a sport, claims that regular walking uses only 45% of the muscles in your body, almost all in the lower body. Pole walking uses 90% of them and engages the upper body as well.
The company’s founder believed that Nordic pole walking increase cardiovascular benefits by 22% compared to regular walking and burned 46% more calories. Aaron Baddish, a cardiologist at Harvard claims the calorie burn can be as much as 67% greater.
As you can see, there’s a range of claims for the calorie benefits. The 20% number from Mayo was confirmed by a study done at Cooper Institute.[i]
But this low end of the range applies to people who use the poles casually without increasing speed. Most people do walk faster. And if you want to turn up the heat, you can increase calorie burn a lot more.
The American College of Sports Medicine has found that pole walking can burn up to 46% more calories per hour. That’s the equivalent of turning a moderately brisk walk into a low-impact aerobics workout or session of running on the ellipticals at the gym.
But it won’t feel as hard.
Good for the Sore Body
The increase in calories burned is incentive enough for many of us, but for people who are recovering from back surgery or anyone prone to lower back pain, walking with a pair of Nordic poles is more comfortable as well.
Poles help you offload weight from your lower body—the hips, knees, and lower back—and transfers the burden to the upper body. That not only eases pain in the lower body but also increases the beneficial exercise in the upper body.
In tests, researchers found that walkers who used poles had a 28% lower shear force on their knees. Shear force is the pressure that happens when the knee is bent so that the upper leg bones (femurs) are exerting pressure in one direction while the lower bones (tibias and fibulas) are pushing the opposite way.
It’s been said by enthusiasts that Nordic pole walking can even tighten the core and abdominal muscles, erase back fat and do away with upper arm flab.
Almost Like a Free Lunch
The poles have another benefit, and it’s a sneaky one. You could think you’re not working so hard.
Studies show that people who walk with poles can increase their heartbeats by 22 beats per minute without any increase in their sensation of increased exertion.
But Not Quite Free
There’s very little downside to grabbing a pair of walking poles and hitting the road. Anyone who can walk can do it and get the benefits.
The only downside, and it’s minor, is the cost. A pair of high-end poles can set you back $200.
But that’s not necessary.
Shop around. Perfectly good poles can cost under $40 for the pair.
The one thing you need to watch out when you get started is that you get Nordic walking poles, not trekking poles, which look similar. The difference is that the Nordic poles have a half-glove style attachment at the top for your hands instead of a loop-type strap. With Nordic walking poles, you can release your grip on the backswing and the pole will naturally come back into position on when your arm swings forward again.
The other “investment” is learning to walk with them. That’s almost natural. But, as always, the Internet has dozens of YouTube videos.
[i]Church TS, Earnest CP, Morss GM.
Field testing of physiological responses associated with Nordic Walking. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2002 Sep;73(3):296-300.