Regular participation in aerobic fitness activities is essential for cardiovascular and overall health. Brisk walking is one of the most common activities prescribed by fitness professionals because it requires minimal equipment and can be undertaken in almost every environment. Research has shown that the addition of specially designed poles to a walking program, commonly referred to as Nordic walking, enhances the aerobic training effects by stimulating additional core and upper body muscle activity.
Nordic walking originated in Finland in the early 19th century as a method for Finnish Nordic skiers and biathletes to continue their high-level training on dry land during the off-season. The success of world-class athletes incorporating this dry land technique into their off-season regime stimulated a rapid increase in Nordic walking popularity among recreational athletes in Scandinavian countries. During the past 20 years, pole walking has become increasingly popular among American fitness enthusiasts.
The American version of pole walking, referred to as “exerstriding,” was popularized by Tom Rutlin who designed the first specialty poles. The primary differences between exerstriding and Nordic walking are the pole design and associated pole technique. Exerstrider poles use an ergonomic hand grip and do not have the wrist strap found on Nordic walking poles. The ergonomic grip appears to decrease hand grip forces and supports the hand more ergonomically than the Nordic poles, where the associated strap allows the walker to release the pole at the end of the back stroke and then catch the grip as the arms move forward. The differences in hand grip result in differing techniques for the arm swing, pole plant, and pole length.
Walkers using Nordic technique maintain the poles in a backward angled position, plant the pole with the arm in a bent position, and then apply force to the pole while stepping forward. People using the exerstrider poles plant the pole with the arm in a handshake position and then apply force as they step forward. Regardless of the type of pole used, proper technique is essential to derive maximum benefit.
BENEFITS OF POLE WALKING
Research has shown that pole walking stimulates a variety of conditioning and health-related benefits. Walking with poles has been shown to intensify the physiological response by increasing heart rate, oxygen uptake, and energy expenditure to levels that are, on average, 15% to 20% greater than walking without poles. This augmented response, in part related to increased muscular activity in the upper body, turns walking into a full-body workout. Electromyographic studies have confirmed increased muscular work in the arms, shoulders, neck, and upper back regions.
Pole walking also has been shown to be a beneficial conditioning technique for people faced with a variety of health challenges and in the elderly. Research studies involving people with medical conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, back pain, and depression have demonstrated improved fitness, reduced pain, and improved mood. Appropriate use of the poles reduces the load on the lower back, hips, and knees; promotes proper posture, especially in the upper back region; and fosters balance and stability, especially in people with musculoskeletal challenges.
Pam Roberts, M.D., a physician wellness coach at the Summit Medical Fitness Center in Kalispell, MT, recommends pole walking as an easily learned movement technique to most of her clients, many who have significant medical health burdens. She states that, “I have seen these poles transform adults with neuropathy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson disease, fibromyalgia, and significant axial degenerative disease from sedentary people into active people who move more and experience greater enjoyment, confidence, and consistency than with ordinary walking.”
Walking with poles is a fun and safe activity that can stimulate additional fitness- and health-related benefits and can be undertaken by almost anyone. It is especially beneficial for those with neuromuscular challenges, muscle weakness, and chronic pain conditions. Although proper technique is essential, walking with poles is generally easy to learn, and many communities offer instructional classes.