The sight of someone cross-country skiing in the middle of the summer can strike many as odd, even funny. Some people seeing this may think, “Why not go totally Iditarod and get a team of giant dogs to follow you down the street?”
Yet pole-walking – known as Nordic walking – is not a laughing matter. This is especially true for people suffering from obesity, diabetes, poor circulation or cardiovascular issues. In fact, many people are finding this snowless cross-country skiing system the ticket to a longer, more fulfilling life. If you’re not convinced, once you hear about the surprise findings of scientific research that goes back to 1995, I bet you will be.
Is Nordic Walking A Total-Body “Walking For Health” System?
Walking for health with poles is a relatively new physical activity. It began in Finland. Some people believe Leena Jaakelainen, a physical education instructor, started the activity in the 1960s to help her students get more exercise when walking. Others believe Mauri Repo, a skiing coach, came up with it in the 1970s to help his athletes train during the summer months.
The International Nordic walking Federation describes Nordic walking as regular walking with the active use of Nordic walking poles. The association stresses that we maintain our natural way of walking when using the poles, and the poles simply supplement the work of our upper body.
The Research Findings on Walking With Poles
Scientists in Austria recently conducted an extensive analysis of all published studies on Nordic walking. They published their findings, “Health Benefits of Nordic walking: A Systematic Review” in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine earlier this year.
Scouring study after study is no frivolous task, and the researchers ultimately found 27 solid, well-designed Nordic walking research papers in the scientific literature that dealt with the health benefits of Nordic walking.
The research they conducted looked at how a variety of ailments and diseases were affected by Nordic walking, including diabetes mellitus, obesity, peripheral arterial disease (PAD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), fibromyalgia, pain, breast cancer, coronary artery disease, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers also analyzed injuries that occur for people while doing Nordic walking. The scientists found that people sustain less than one injury (0.926) for every 1000 hours spent Nordic walking. As reference, basketball and squash each have 14 injuries per 1000 hours. The most common injuries were strains of the arm and thumb.
The research showed that Nordic walking has beneficial effects on blood pressure, heart rate, exercise capacity and overall quality of life.
That sounds good, but there were some specific, interesting and surprise findings.
How Does Nordic Walking Compare to Walking?
Nordic walking beat ordinary walking with regard to oxygen consumption (surpassed walking by 11-23%), peak heart rate (4-18%), and calories burned (18-22%).
The scientists write:
“Nordic walking over the long-term leads to superior cardiorespiratory fitness as compared to walking without poles…”
By walking with poles, more muscle is engaged in our upper body, resulting in more calories used and increased respiratory activity.
Walk Away From Pain
Research with breast cancer patients found Nordic walking improved motion in the shoulder joints and reduced upper body pain. Muscular development improved over ordinary walking as well.
Fibromyalgia is a serious disease syndrome characterized by a multitude of problems, including localized or “whole body” pain, numbness, sleep problems, stiffness and other issues. In one study, these people who suffered with fibromyalgia had improved functional ability and felt able to participate in more activities after Nordic walking for 20 minutes twice a week for 15 weeks.
Improve Your Life
Scientists discovered that people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who performed Nordic walking for one hour three times a week for 12 weeks experienced less anxiety and depression and an overall “improved quality of life.”
A study of obese people found Nordic walking led to decreased body mass and blood pressure, when compared to ordinary walking.
Research on using Nordic walking during a cardiac rehabilitation program found more calories burned (over normal walking) and most interestingly, an increase in endurance and improvement in balance.
People with peripheral arterial disease (PAD) who suffered with painful intermittent claudication when trying to walk were able to walk farther and with less pain as a result of long-term Nordic walking.
Can Nordic Walking Be Your Bridge Between Walking and Running?
Nordic walking boosts ordinary walking. For some people walking may not be enough, but running may be too much. Persons in this category may find Nordic walking a perfect fit. The researchers write:
“Nordic walking is suitable to close the intensity gap between walking and jogging…”
They go on to say:
Nordic walking is “an alternative for everybody seeking a sport that fulfills the needs of daily physical activity at an optimal intensity…”
Nordic Walking and Diabetes
Separate research by a Swedish team of scientists, “Effects of Nordic walking on health-related quality of life in overweight individuals with Type 2 diabetes mellitus, impaired or normal glucose tolerance,” was published in the journal Diabetic Medicine (2011).
The study had 212 individuals each of whom participated in Nordic walking for five hours per week for four months. The researchers proved that Nordic walking reduced subjects body mass index (a scientific estimate of fatness) and improved their quality of sleep.
The scientists estimate that 8% of Swedish adults use medication to help sleep. Given the addictive nature of these drugs (and their side-effects), they suggest alternate exercise-type methods, such as Nordic walking, to help people sleep need further investigation.
Ominous News For Insomniacs
More concerning for people with insomnia, the scientists discuss a link between lack of a good night’s sleep and the onset of diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension). These findings have been documented by other researchers, as has a reduced risk of developing sleep disorders in those people who exercise regularly. The scientists advocate Nordic walking as a safe exercise, even for people with Type 2 diabetes.
They also noted what a low-cost solution pole-walking really is. Reading that section, I thought of the reason I first wanted to write about pole-walking. It was from a letter I received from one of my readers.
Walking With Poles and Your Heart
A study from scientists at the University of Ottawa, Canada, compared Nordic walking to standard cardiac (heart) rehabilitation methods for people with moderate to severe heart failure.
Fifty-four cardiac patients participated in the study with an average age of 62.4 years old. Half of the patients did 200-400 minutes per week for 12 weeks of standard cardiac rehab exercises and the other half did Nordic walking.
Nordic walking proved superior. The scientists found a significantly functional capacity in the hearts of the group that was Nordic walking. The Nordic walking patients also did more physical activity overall and had less symptoms of depression.
This finding about the remarkable power of Nordic walking has profound implications for the many hundreds of thousands of people undergoing cardiac rehabilitation, not only in terms of offering superior rehabilitation but also in terms of huge cost savings.
A Testimonial from a FloWalking Reader
Like many of my ideas for blog topics, I was inspired to read up on Nordic walking by a letter from Vanessa Walters, an avid pole walker who’s been at it for several years.
Vanessa loves the fact that pole-walking allows her to maximize her exercise time. Instead of getting the bottom half of the body working (plus some action above), she engages her entire physique. Also, she realized that she doesn’t have to sit inside her car and waste money on gas when she can go Nordic walking and improve the situation on several counts.
What are the drawbacks? As far as I can tell, there are none. Vanessa mentioned she occasionally gets a strange glance on the road (sometimes, people chuckle at the sight of skiing in June), but she doesn’t suffer these fools. Instead, she’s found it as the ideal exercise solution for someone who doesn’t run. She describes herself as “not geared” for running – something many people can relate to.
Vanessa even competes in 5K races with other people who practice Nordic walking. It sounds as if she’s found her niche in the exercise world. That’s all anyone can ask for, I believe. No matter what your body’s limitations – or what condition you are trying to conquer – you can improve your fitness by walking for health. If you get into Nordic walking, better yet.
I am so excited about the benefits of Nordic walking when walking for health I am ready to try it myself. I have had some FloWalking students tell me they do it when walking at times, so I think it would be a great adjunct to healthy walking. If you have tried Nordic walking, please share your experience with it here.
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Fritz T, Caidahl K, Osler M, Ostenson CG, Zierath JR, Wändell P. Effects of Nordic walking on health-related quality of life in overweight individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus, impaired or normal glucose tolerance. Diabet Med. 2011 Nov;28(11):1362-72.
Keast ML, Slovinec D’Angelo ME, Nelson CR, Turcotte SE, McDonnell LA, Nadler RE, Reed JL, Pipe AL, Reid RD. Randomized Trial of Nordic Walking in Patients With Moderate to Severe Heart Failure. Can J Cardiol. 2013 Jun 14.
Tschentscher M, Niederseer D, Niebauer J. Health benefits of Nordic walking: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med. 2013 Jan;44(1):76-84.
Photo credits: I graciously thank the following fine photographers: Photo 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/oberhof/ Oberhof Tourismus Photo 2 Nordic Walking Zaragoza http://www.flickr.com/photos/nordicwalkingzaragoza/ Photo 3 http://www.flickr.com/photos/iz4aks/ Giorgio Minguzzi