Why Nordic Walking Deserves a Spot in Your Workout Routine


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It’s no secret that walking has grown in popularity as a workout. From hot girl walks to treadmill struts — there’s a way to walk that works for everyone. If you’ve tried both of those and are looking for a new and challenging way to put one foot in front of the other, consider Nordic walking.

Nordic walking is a rich cardiovascular exercise and involves using poles to walk, so that you engage more of your muscles. It’s a great way to make walking a more vigorous workout, and the poles can be adapted for use on trails, paths, or pavement.

Not sure how to get started? POPSUGAR tapped experts Bernd Zimmermann, the founder and president of the American Nordic Walking Association, and David Caldarella, DPM, a foot and ankle surgeon for Steward Medical Group in Massachusetts, to weigh in on everything you need to know about Nordic walking, including Nordic walking benefits, technique, and the best poles to get you started.

What Is Nordic Walking?

“Nordic walking is a full-body workout that’s like a hybrid between fitness walking and cross-country skiing,” Zimmermann says. The main difference is the use of poles, which are used to work the upper body in addition to the lower body during your walk.

“Nordic walking poles aren’t a replacement for a cane; they’re a fitness tool, and it’s very important to learn how to use them,” Zimmermann says. Similar to hiking poles, Nordic walking poles have a loop or strap that goes around your wrist and come with a variety of handles and material options (more on that later!).

The practice originated in Finland, where the technique was developed in the late 1970s as a way for cross-country skiers to maintain their aerobic fitness during the summer off season, both Zimmermann and Dr. Caldarella share.

Nordic Walking Benefits

“Walking with specialty Nordic walking poles provides a safe and effective cardiovascular exercise which engages both the lower and upper extremities and core,” Dr. Caldarella says. In fact, Nordic walking engages 90 percent of the muscles in your body, per Cleveland Clinic. And a study comparing the effects of Nordic Walking, conventional walking, and resistance-band training on overall fitness in older adults demonstrated Nordic walking as the most effective workout.

Zimmermann puts it succinctly: “Walking is good, but Nordic walking is better, because it’s a full-body workout. It’s like having a car in two-wheel drive versus four-wheel drive.” In addition to all the physical benefits, licensed psychologist Abbie Jones, PhD, reports that Nordic walking while doing something cognitively taxing, like listening to a challenging podcast or audiobook, is a great way to boost your cognitive health and prevent cognitive decline. A systematic review showed that it may have some benefits for Parkinson’s as well.

How to Choose Nordic Walking Poles

When shopping for Nordic poles (which are often confused for other sporting poles), there is a wide range of specifications and quality out there, and you want to be mindful of a few things to find the best fit.

For starters, Nordic walking poles are shorter than the poles you would use to cross-country ski, so you can’t use the same ones, Zimmermann warns. Additionally, most Nordic walking poles come with a rubber tip to cover the metal spike at the bottom so that you can walk on pavement or asphalt with a better grip, he says. Make sure to look for that when shopping around. Nordic poles are also typically lighter than hiking or trekking poles.

Some higher-quality poles even have a trigger clicker at the handles. It’s not necessary, but it can be beneficial so you can easily click your gloves in and out, which gives your hands a better connection with the pole than just loops, Zimmermann says. His favorite brand to recommend is Leki. You can choose between fixed-length or adjustable travel poles that collapse and can be easily packed in a suitcase.

“A lot of people just go on the internet to Amazon and third parties, but the problem is you get what you pay for. Good walking poles start at around $100,” Zimmermann says. “Remember, you’re making an investment in your health. You don’t have to get the most expensive pole, but I recommend spending somewhere around $150.”

“The poles are crucial to Nordic walking as the cadence of the arm swing advances each pole to a particular stride length,” Dr. Caldarella says. Both he and Zimmermann recommend quality adjustable telescoping poles, since they’re easy to adjust for your height and to travel with. One-piece poles are another decent option. They are generally light and equally stable, but they have to be well matched to the individual’s height and stature, Dr. Caldarella says.

Nordic Pole Walking Technique

You may not get the hang of Nordic walking right away — and that’s OK. The walking motion is similar to natural walking in that your opposite leg and arm move forward at the same time. That said, dealing with the poles can be tricky at first. Here’s a helpful step-by-step breakdown of proper walking technique from Zimmermann to get you started:

  1. Start by holding the poles in both hands with a firm grip, close to the body.
  2. The poles should be pointed back behind you at a 45-degree angle, so they’re not touching the ground.
  3. Take a step forward with your left leg and bring your right arm forward. Always keep the poles pointing back behind you.
  4. As you roll through the full step, push your right arm behind you.
  5. As you step forward and push your arm back, keep your elbow bent, then slowly extend your arm behind you until it’s straight and the pole is pointing straight back.
  6. As you straighten your arm back, your hand might naturally want to open slightly, and that’s OK — that’s what the loops on the poles are for! Tighten your grip, bring the pole forward, and repeat on the opposite side.

Focusing on using both poles takes time, but it will start feeling like an extension of your natural stride before you know it.

How to Add Nordic Walking to Your Workout Routine

“Depending on your baseline level of wellness, stability, and interest, a slow and steady purposeful initiation into Nordic walking is quite similar to the beginning of a normal walking fitness routine,” Dr. Caldarella says. He recommends quiet, flat roads that don’t have through traffic. Dr. Caldarella also advises that beginners wear a quality stability athletic shoe; choose stable, comfortable terrain; and select Nordic poles that are adjustable, so they can experiment with the right length and personal fit.

“As you progress, you can then proceed to varying terrain and terrain-specific footwear to further enjoy the outdoors, trails, beaches, parks, etc.,” he says. Zimmermann recommends that beginners start Nordic walking for 30 minutes, three times a week.

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