Nordic Walking Is Pretty Badass, Actually

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I was skeptical of Nordic Walking when I first heard of it. It seemed like a try at commodifying taking a stroll, like, “You’re not really walking until you’re doing it with these expensive walking poles,” but after looking into the research behind it, my mind was changed completely.

Nordic walking is different from just “walking while carrying poles,” and offers a number of benefits over normal walking. It burns more calories, exercises more muscles, puts less stress on joints, and provides extra stability. While it’s beneficial for just about anyone, it’s particularly helpful for older people, people who are new to fitness, and anyone recovering from an injury.

What is Nordic walking?

Nordic walking began in Finland, where cross-country skiers have been walking with their poles during warmer seasons for a long time. In 1966, Finnish gym teacher Leena Jääskeläinen was the first to develop an organized pole-walking routine. In the 1990s, the first commercially available Nordic walking poles were manufactured, and the activity has been slowly building steam since.

Nordic walking combines specialized equipment and specific technique resulting in a longer stride and engagement of more muscle groups than either walking with hiking/trekking poles or walking with no poles at all. It’s a cardio and muscle workout in one.

The benefits of Nordic walking over simply walking

Research indicates that Nordic walking is more beneficial than normal walking in just about every way. Nordic walking, if done correctly, combines the cardio benefits of a brisk walk with a muscle workout for your legs, shoulders, arms and core, and even burns more calories than normal walking. Because the impact of each step is spread to the poles/arms, it lessens strain on joints and provides added stability. Research indicates these effects are even present if Nordic walkers walk at a slower pace than regular walking.

Like most other forms of exercise, Nordic walking is correlated with decreases in depression and anxiety, increase of muscle strength, and improvements to endurance and flexility, but one of the most interesting results from the scientific study of Nordic walking is in perceived effort. Objectively, the practice takes more energy than regular walking, but a study of obese women found that subjects didn’t perceive it as being more strenuous than walking, and were more likely to keep doing it compared to other exercise forms. It also gets you outdoors—a big advantage over working out in a gym

What equipment do you need for Nordic walking?

In order to enjoy the full benefits of Nordic walking, you’ll need the right equipment. Along with a decent pair of sneakers (or hiking boots, depending on how rugged you’re gonna get), a water bottle, and some sunblock, Nordic walking is all about the poles.

Nordic walking poles are not the same as hiking poles, ski poles, or trekking poles. The main difference is the hand strap. Nordic walking involves applying pressure to the pole through the strap/glove, so they’re thicker and bigger, where straps for trekking poles are usually simple loops designed so you don’t drop them.

Nordic poles also come with different “paws.” If you’re walking on soft ground, you use a pointy one, but on solid ground, Nordic poles have specially angled pads designed to work with the placement of the poles behind you as you walk.

Nordic poles come in two varieties: fixed-length and adjustable. If you’re new, adjustable is probably the right choice, at least until you’re sure how long they should be for you. They’re not super expensive either: the best-reviewed poles here are $130, but you can find a basic set for less than half of that.

Learning Nordic walking technique

It might seem a little silly to worry about the technique of walking with poles, but it’s actually a different enough means of locomotion that there’s a learning curve, and it takes some getting used to.

In a broad sense, Nordic pole-walking involves taking larger strides than regular walking, assisted by “pushing off” on the poles in your hands. On the downstroke, when there’s no pressure on the hands, Nordic walkers release the poles and let ‘em swing free, them grab ‘em on the upstroke. So there are a few things to keep in mind when starting out.

There are two ways you can go about learning how to walk again: Teach yourself or get an instructor. If you’re going it alone, there are a ton of useful guides of Nordic walking technique online, including videos on YouTube that are particularly helpful because they provide a visual guide, as well.

If you’re new to exercise, out-of-shape, particularly uncoordinated, or starting Nordic walking as a way of recovering from an injury, you should probably consult with a trainer in your area to get familiar with the basics. If you can’t find a trainer, check meetup.com for a local group in your area. I’m sure some nice Nordic pro would be happy to show a newcomer the ropes. And the poles.

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