Health and Healthcare

Nordic walking: Why is it better for you than walking without poles?

A person Nordic walking on a beach

Nordic walking offers multiple health benefits. Image: Unsplash/Joppe Spaa

Lindsay Bottoms
Reader in Exercise and Health Physiology, University of Hertfordshire
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  • Nordic walking was developed in Scandinavia and involves walking with poles.
  • Despite having many health benefits, its popularity remains limited.
  • Here's 7 reasons why Nordic walking is better for us than walking without poles, according to an expert.

Have you ever noticed people out walking with poles even on flat surfaces and wondered why they are doing it? This is known as Nordic walking, which is a little bit like cross country skiing but without the snow.

Walking with poles was first developed in Scandinavia and came to central Europe about 20 years ago. For some reason, it has not become particularly popular even though it has many health benefits.

Here’s why – alongside a few good reasons to give Nordic walking a try.

1. You burn more calories

As far back as 1995, researchers noticed that Nordic walking burned more calories than regular walking did. In fact, they found it burned up to 18% more calories than ordinary walking did.

Numerous studies have confirmed these findings since – which is why it’s suggested that Nordic walking could be a great form of exercise for those looking to lose weight. One study from Italy even found that overweight people lost weight faster doing Nordic walking compared to ordinary walking.

While Nordic walking doesn’t burn more calories than other, more intense forms of exercise – such as running – it can be a great low-impact exercise option, or a way to boost the benefits of your regular daily walks.

2. It may reduce limb pain

Using poles while you walk can distribute your weight through the arms and torso, placing less strain on your back, knees and hips. In theory, this has the potential to improve back pain while walking.

However, research is mixed, with some studies showing Nordic walking can reduce lower back pain and impact on the knees, while others show it’s no more helpful than ordinary walking.

If you’re someone who suffers from lower back, hip or knee pain, Nordic walking could be helpful to you since it redistributes your weight somewhat. But it’s worth discussing with your doctor first before giving it a try, and stopping if your pain still persists even while using the poles.

3. Improves upper body strength

Nordic walking engages your arms and shoulders more than regular walking does, and that could improve your strength. Research has shown that Nordic walking can not only increase hand grip strength but also increases muscle activity in the shoulders.

Upper body strength – including how strong your grip is – is important for many of the things we do everyday, from carrying our shopping to filling up the kettle. Increasing muscle strength is also important to help prevent injury as it helps stabilise the joints and protects them when moving under impact like carrying heavy shopping bags.

4. Increases core strength

Nordic walking also engages the core muscles (including those in the abdomen and your back) more than ordinary walking does.

Greater engagement of the core muscles will help strengthen them, which may in turn improve posture. Better core strength can also improve your balance as well as your ability to move.

5. Reduce risk of falling

Unfortunately as we get older we are more likely to trip and fall when we are walking. This is mainly because of a decrease in muscle strength, balance issues and problems with the way we walk.

Nordic walking
Nordic walking may improve balance. Image: Unsplash/Anders Nielsen

The benefit of Nordic walking is that you are placing the poles into the ground at the same time as you’re using your legs. This improves balance and makes you less likely to fall.

In fact, one study even showed that people who followed a Nordic walking training programme for three weeks had improved balance – even when walking without poles. It’s no wonder Public Health England recommends Nordic walking for improving balance in older people.

6. Boosts cardiovascular health

Research shows that Nordic walking can improve cardiovascular fitness in as little as four weeks.

Another study on obese women also showed Nordic walking was able to improve blood pressure, though only to a similar extent as ordinary walking. In addition, Nordic walking has been shown in postmenopausal women to improve resting blood sugar levels, which is important in preventing diabetes as well as improving cholesterol levels in the blood.

7. You can walk faster

Nordic walking can help you get where you want to be faster than ordinary walking can. In fact, a review showed Nordic walking increased average walking speed by up to 25% compared to ordinary walking. As a consequence of walking faster, you can then burn more calories. So if you went for a 30-minute Nordic walk, you’d be able to walk further and burn more calories than you might on a regular walk.

There seem to be clear advantages to doing Nordic walking. It may especially be good for people who don’t like other types of exercise – such as running – but still want to do something of a higher intensity than brisk walking.

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