Walk the Nordic Way
BY: Karen Asp
I'm walking through my neighborhood on a summer day when I pass a woman who stares at me funny and shouts, "Trying to ski on asphalt?" I laugh. By now I've heard all the jokes. Sometimes it's "Where's the snow?" I can't blame these people. After all, walking with two long poles, one in each hand, does look goofy. But if they knew the benefits of Nordic walking, I doubt they'd be so quick to laugh.
Nordic walking got its start in Finland in the 1930s as a cross-training tool for Nordic skiers. Europeans adopted it as a recreational exercise activity in the 1980s, and in 1997, Exel introduced the first official pole designed specifically for Nordic walking (rather than Nordic skiing). While Americans started to take notice of the sport a couple of years ago, today millions of Europeans engage in Nordic walking. Its popularity in the United States is growing fast as more and more health clubs, spas and resorts add Nordic walking to their class offerings. In fact, pole manufacturers report that, based on sales in this country, they expect five million Americans to pick up the sport in the next five years -- and with good reason.
Nordic walking offers a slew of benefits. Research shows that by adding two poles and the Nordic walking technique to your stroll, you can improve your overall health in at least five ways:
- Burn up to 46 percent more calories than walking without poles
- Build upper body and core strength
- Reduce stress on the joints
- Obtain the same aerobic intensity as running without the impact
- Relieve shoulder and neck tension, due to the unique mechanics of using poles as you walk
Plus, anybody can learn Nordic walking. "There's a small learning curve with Nordic walking, which is dependent on your body awareness, coordination and athletic ability, yet the basics take only about an hour to learn," says Selena M. Moffitt, Nordic walking master trainer for Exel and personal trainer at Cascade Athletic Club in Gresham, Ore. And even though you have a pole in each hand, you're still moving opposite arm with opposite leg, just as you do when you're walking without poles, she says.
Another bonus: You can do Nordic walking almost anywhere, including on grass, dirt, concrete, sand -- even snow.
It's also an activity that suits all fitness levels, from the beginner who's just starting an exercise program to the advanced athlete who's looking for a new training tool to kick up the intensity. You can even enter full-length marathons with your poles, as select marathons are beginning to include Nordic walking divisions.
To get started, you'll need a pair of Nordic walking poles. These have special features, including straps for your hands, spiked tips for walking in dirt or grass, rubber tips to put over the spike when walking on hard surfaces, plus a lightweight composition.
Expect to spend between $70 and $100 for a good pair of poles, which usually includes a helpful DVD that teaches you the basics. Higher-performance poles may cost more. To figure out which type is best for you, head to a sporting goods store or a shoe store that specializes in walking and try out different models.
You should also know that there are two types of poles: adjustable and fixed length. Because poles are fitted to your height, buy adjustable if you're sharing with other people, advises Suzanne Nottingham, director of education for LEKI USA and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Otherwise, the choice is yours.
For your feet, regular walking shoes will work. If you wind up getting serious about the sport, you might consider shoes specially designed for Nordic walkers.
Ready to give it a go? Most people can pick up the basics from the DVD, but nothing beats a hands-on lesson from a real-life instructor. So if you can, search the Internet for "Nordic walking" to locate instructors and classes in your area. Or call community centers, local health clubs or walking stores to find out if there's a Nordic walking clinic near you. Then lace up those sneakers, grab those poles, and soon, you'll wonder how you ever walked without them.
Karen Asp is a fitness and health writer and a certified personal trainer who writes for numerous publications, including SELF, Glamour, Women’s Health, Family Circle, Prevention, Redbook and Men’s Fitness. Karen is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.