Here in the UK we are very fortunate to have a variety of landscapes to explore and the summer is a good time to go venturing out into new territories. Until recently most people would have just donned their walking boots and set off. Now, however, some people are grabbing a pair of poles as well. These travellers have adopted Nordic walking and the converted are embracing it in an enthusiastic way. In this article we shall look at what it is and some of the health benefits it confers.
Nordic walking originated in Finland as an exercise for cross-country skiers in the summer season. It is a special way of walking with poles which are shorter than ski poles and have different detachable bases to use according to the terrain being covered. Used correctly the upper body is exercised at the same time as the legs. Nordic Walking UK recommends classes to learn the correct technique. Gail Stewart from this organisation describes it like this;
“Swing your arms from your shoulders with your elbows straight – don’t bend your arms as you would when running. It’s like a soldier marching, but without the stiffness. Treat the poles as an extension of your arms – imagine you have turned into a four-legged animal. Most important of all – be natural. And that can be the hardest thing!
Just like normal walking, Nordic walking is suitable for all ages and fitness levels. The experienced fit Nordic walker can stride out at a fast pace and experience a total body work out. The novice or less active person can step out at their own pace and use the poles to support themselves, easing the impact on their leg joints.
The health benefits of walking are well known and include;
- Reduction in the risk of developing the following conditions;
- Heart disease as blood pressure is lowered, LDL (bad cholesterol) level is lowered and HDL (good cholesterol) level is raised.
- Diabetes type 2
- Some cancers
- Weight management
- Toning of legs and bottom
- Boosts vitamin D level
This in itself is an impressive list. However, there are additional claims made for Nordic walking. Research carried out by The University of Brighton demonstrated that for healthy people aged 60 and over, the amount of energy used and the heart rate were on average 40% higher for Nordic walkers compared to ordinary walkers. While the latter exercises the legs the former also provides a comprehensive workout for arms, shoulders and abdominal muscles – in fact 90% of the body’s skeletal muscles. All this helps strengthen the spine and improves posture.
As well as helping to tone the body and reduce waist size, walking with Nordic poles burns 20-40% more calories than normal walking. This makes it a very effective resource for those who wish to lose weight. Regular Nordic walking can result in a leaner and more sculpted body.
So is there a difference in effect on heart health between ordinary and Nordic walking? An American systematic review looked at just this question. The authors reviewed 16 Randomized Control Trials with a total of 1062 patients and 11 observational studies with 831 patients. They surmised that,
“.. with regard to short- and long-term effects on heart rate, oxygen consumption, quality of life, and other measures, Nordic walking is superior to brisk walking without poles . Nordic walking exerts beneficial effects on resting heart rate, blood pressure, exercise capacity, maximal oxygen consumption, and quality of life in patients …”
They felt Nordic walking could be used both to prevent ill health and help recovery from the same.
Other research has looked at the benefits on certain conditions. It has been found to be beneficial for people with Parkinson’s Disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, fibromyalgia, breast cancer, vascular disease to name but a few.
Most gyms today have cross trainers which provide similar exercise to Nordic walking but there the similarity ends. The former is a stationary activity in an air conditioned room, facing the same mirror or wall, listening to man-made music. The latter offers changing scenery, changing weather and the sounds and smells of nature. It is a multi sensory activity so reducing boredom and encouraging people to continue. There is a substantial amount of evidence which shows that exercising in a natural environment improves mental health by reducing stress levels, enhancing moods and boosting self esteem.
The only obvious drawback to Nordic walking is that you need to buy or borrow poles before you can start. However, once acquired, they are likely to last for years. To start with it would be a good idea to join a class or have some instruction so you get the maximum benefit by using the correct technique. It also means that you can meet other Nordic walkers and maybe plan a group outing. nordicwalking.co.uk is a good place to find classes or instructors.
Having prepared yourself and with poles in hand, why not spend some days this summer exploring the UK. You may choose one of the national trails such as the Pennine Bridleway – if you don’t fancy doing all 205 miles of it you can do as much as you like. Alternatively you may find you own walks whether in middle England, the Scottish Highlands, the Welsh mountains or any coastal path. Enjoy the diversity of our countryside both in terms of scenery, wild life and, of course, weather. Whether you face hot sun, bracing wind, rain (gentle, persistent or torrential) each walking experience will be unique and enjoyed in different ways. As you stride out you will have a chance to reflect on your life and to put things into perspective. The natural rhythm of the walk provides the ideal tempo for thought. As well as doing all this you will also be getting fitter and may be adding years to your life.