BENEFITS OF TREKKING POLES
Are there advantages to walking with trekking poles, also known as Nordic walking? Studies indicate that there may be some important benefits over and above those found from regular walking. A study by Figard-Fabre et al. (2) examined the effects of Nordic walking on previously sedentary, obese, middle-aged women. After training for 12 weeks, 3 times per week, and using an interval protocol, women who used trekking poles to perform Nordic walking had a significantly higher V˙O2peak when compared with walkers without poles and also had significantly better program adherence. Both groups of walkers did lose a modest amount of weight, decreased their body fat, and lowered diastolic blood pressure during the 12-week period. Interestingly, however, although the Nordic walkers were able to work at a higher heart rate and a higher percentage of V˙O2peak, they reported approximately the same levels of perceived exertion as the walkers without poles.
Adherence to an activity program is an important concern, particularly for those struggling with obesity. Participants in the Nordic walking study apparently were intrigued by the novelty of the trekking poles and declared that this type of activity was enjoyable from a psychological perspective, which helped them to adhere and work at a higher level of intensity.
Note that there is a slight learning curve to perform Nordic walking with poles correctly. The Figard-Fabre et al. (2) study followed guidelines from the International Nordic Walking Federation (inwa-nordicwalking.com) regarding pole height and Nordic walking technique.
A more recent study examined the effects of Nordic walking on older adults. Takeshima et al. (5) compared Nordic walking with conventional walking and band-based resistance exercise. In this case, the measured outcomes were cardiorespiratory fitness, upper body strength, flexibility, and static and dynamic balance. Walking is well known to improve aerobic fitness, whereas resistance training exercise reliably improves muscular strength and endurance. Takeshima et al. (5) wanted to see whether a 12-week Nordic walking program, which places a potentially increased musculoskeletal challenge on the upper body in addition to the cardiorespiratory system, would yield improvements in both, relative to more conventional resistance training and walking.
To find out, 65 seniors were recruited and divided into four groups: Nordic walkers, conventional walkers, those using elastic resistance bands, and a control group. Both groups of walkers exercised three times per week, whereas the elastic resistance band group performed exercises for all major muscle groups twice per week (in adherence to ACSM guidelines); all programs were supervised by fitness professionals. Fitness parameters were measured using standard older adult assessments (4). Static balance was measured while participants stood on various surfaces with eyes open or closed, and postural sway was evaluated. Dynamic balance was measured with a limit of stability test performed on a balance platform.
Results showed that cardiorespiratory fitness improved in both the Nordic walking and the conventional walking groups but not the resistance band group. Upper body strength improved in the Nordic walking and the resistance band groups but not the conventional walking group. Flexibility was improved in all groups, excluding the control group; however, the Nordic walking group exhibited greater flexibility overall. Static and dynamic balance remained the same for all four groups.
The key message of the Takeshima etal. (5) study is that Nordic walking shows the greatest benefits in combined training; in other words, improvements were demonstrated in three components of fitness (cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and flexibility), as opposed to just one component showing change. This type of whole-body approach to fitness is more time efficient than addressing each component individually.
The bottom line? Nordic walking (using trekking poles) appears to work! It promotes aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, flexibility, improvements in body mass and body fat, is time efficient, enjoyable, and can enhance adherence!
DO MORE HOUSEWORK?
A fascinating study by Archer et al. (1) revealed that the hours spent and the energy expended in routine household management have decreased drastically since 1965. The drop in this aspect of physical activity may have contributed significantly to the ever-increasing obesity epidemic.
This study, with data collected from 1965 to 2010, specifically examined the amount of time and calories (energy expenditure) women spent on household management, as well as how time was allocated for other activities. Household management, as defined by the authors, referred to the preparation of food, kitchen cleanup after a meal, laundry chores, and general house cleaning. Child care, yard work, and larger home maintenance activities (such as wall painting) were not included in the analysis.
Overall, time spent on housework decreased by an average of 12.4 hours during the 45-year period, whereas energy expenditure declined by 1,857 Kcal/week, or 265 Kcal/day. The reduction in household chores partly is caused by advances in food manufacturing (e.g., prepackaged meals) and the increased number of microwaves, food processors, dishwashers, and vacuum cleaners in American homes during the past few decades. Also, the fact that more people are eating out frequently means less time is spent working in the home kitchen.
The authors also examined activity displacement. Because household chores are taking up less time, what activities are being performed instead? Unfortunately, screen-based media use (e.g., TV) concurrently increased by 9.6 hours/week for unemployed women and 7.5 hours/week for employed women. Leisure time physical activity also increased, on average, by 1.2 hours per week. This would seem to be good news, except that the increase in recreational physical activity is not enough to offset the significant decrease in housework-related caloric expenditure. Apparently, most of the newly available time generated by the reduced household demands is spent in sedentary pursuits. What were once active behaviors now are replaced primarily by sedentary behaviors. The authors suggest that this type of major trend toward increasing sedentariness largely is responsible for the obesity epidemic. They point out that the current physical activity guidelines are not sufficient to overcome the decline in calories burned through household work and the resulting increase in sedentary behaviors. The key message? Move more and sit less, even if it means doing more housework!
CONTINUING THE FUNCTIONAL TRAINING VERSUS CONVENTIONAL STRENGTH TRAINING DEBATE
What is meant by conventional training? In a study by Pacheco et al. (3), conventional training meant performing traditional exercises that have little to no requirement for isometric stability (e.g., a supine bench press with a barbell). Although the definition of functional training may be less clear-cut, Pacheco and colleagues (3) labeled exercises as functional if an increased emphasis was placed on the coactivation of stabilizer muscles while performing a move. For example, instead of training the pectoralis major with a barbell bench press (conventional training), they used a push-up to train the pectoralis major and core stabilizer muscles simultaneously, such as the rectus abdominis and erector spinae (functional training). Other functional training exercises identified by the authors included planks, side planks, and exercises requiring balance such as lunging in a line, a squat with feet together, and squats on an unstable surface.
In this study, 101 healthy, independent, middle-aged and elderly participants were divided into two groups: a conventional strength training group and a functional training group. Both groups met twice a week for a total of 24 sessions. Both groups were pretested and posttested using a qualitative measure (Functional Movement Screen (FMS)) and a quantitative measure (Y-Balance Test). The FMS involves seven movement patterns that are assessed based on an individual’s alignment, flexibility, and stability, whereas the Y-Balance Test primarily assesses balance.
The functional training protocol was designed as follows: during the 24 sessions, an exercise progression was used consisting of three phases. These were 1) exercises that emphasized stability while avoiding simultaneous dynamic movements; 2) exercises that used dynamic movements of the extremities and isometric stabilization of the trunk; 3) exercises that combined balance, stability, and dynamic force ultimately. Meanwhile, the conventional strength training protocol was progressed simply by increasing the intensity of the resistance (adding more weight).
What were the results? Both the conventional training and functional training groups showed significant improvement on the FMS; there was no difference between the two groups, indicating that eithermode of training can improve function as measured by the FMS. Although the authors cite studies with differingresults, they suggest that the contradiction may be caused by differences in the participants studied.
Notably, the functional training group showed a significant improvement on the Y-Balance Test, whereas the conventional training group did not. This would seem to illustrate the principle of specificity: the functional training group practiced specific balance-focused exercises, and these apparently had a direct and favorable impact on the ability to balance. Because the conventional training group did not practice any balance exercises, and instead used weight-supported benches and machines, no balance improvements were found.
The authors conclude by pointing out the importance of progression in movement training. Traditional resistance training should precede functional training that incorporates balance, core stability challenges, and dynamic movements. This is key to develop basic capabilities and to ensure safety. In addition, a person’s fitness status should be considered: the less fit a person is, the more conventional the protocol.