Nordic pole walking is a highly enjoyable, easy‐to‐learn way for exercisers of all ages to get outdoors and get moving. If you're unfamiliar with Nordic pole walking, this primer will provide key reasons why it can be such a good fit for your older‐adult clients, in particular.

Once you've got a handle on the benefits of Nordic pole walking, it could become your most popular training tool for this demographic (and possibly for clients of all ages). You'd be hard‐pressed to find another aerobic and strength training workout that costs so little yet provides so many benefits.

What Is Nordic Pole Walking?

Nordic pole walking is a hybrid of Nordic (cross‐country) skiing and walking—in essence, skiing on dry land (minus the skis). Pushing the pole tips against the ground distributes body weight away from the lower extremities, relieving stress on the pole walker's joints while activating upper‐body muscles.

"Nordic pole walking combines an upper‐body strength workout with a cardiovascular workout, engaging 90% of our body's muscles, making it an effective total‐body physical activity for older adults and those living with chronic diseases," says Greg Bellamy, president and co‐founder of Nordixx Canada, the country's leading distributor of Nordic poles and one of Canada's top education and certifying agencies for Nordic pole walking instructors. Though pole walking has been around for decades, it's really begun to (ahem) make strides in the fitness community in the past 10 years. Various companies manufacture walking poles.

In Europe, Nordic pole walking traces its roots back to 1966, when Finnish physical education instructor Leena Jääskeläinen introduced "walking with ski poles" to her students at the School of Viherlaakso, in Helsinki. In the mid‐1990s, Finland's national Nordic ski team began using the poles to train during the off‐season (INWA 2013). On this side of the Atlantic, by 1988 fitness advocate Tom Rutlin had already introduced a slightly different version of the Finnish pole‐walking method with the development of his Exerstrider walking poles. Almost three decades later, Rutlin still gets excited talking about the benefits of Nordic pole walking.

"No other simple, accessible physical activity that is so ideal for people of any age and ability engages the core muscles more effectively than Nordic Walking does," Rutlin says. Indeed, improved core strength and stability are primary reasons why the sport has gone from a sidewalk oddity to an activity that is increasingly incorporated into elder‐
fitness programs across the continent.

Pole‐Walking Success Stories

Vince Knap, an avid pole walker at the York West Active Living Centre in Toronto, found Nordic pole walking an effective way to lose weight. "I went from 235 to 195 pounds and kept the weight off, thanks in part to Nordic pole walking and a healthy diet," says Knap. Another advocate is Bonnie McBride, who pole‐walks with a seniors group at the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities in Scarborough, Ontario. She is enthusiastic about how it helps manage knee arthritis. "Before I began pole walking, I could only walk a certain distance, but the poles have allowed me to walk farther, and my knees don't get as sore as often."

Indeed, relieving joint pain is one of the most proven benefits of pole walking. "Old injuries and chronic wear and tear reduce the cartilage or cushioning around joints, causing pain and inflammation," says Jennifer Howey, a Toronto‐based physical therapist and owner of InsideOut Physiotherapy & Wellness Group. "Nordic poles encourage more core‐muscle activity and place less pressure on the joints. Patients become more active because they move with less pain."

Nordic poles also help prevent falls. "As we age, we move less," Howey says. "We become more rigid and lose flexibility. Poor posture and rigidity make us less able to respond to sudden changes, and we are at an increased risk of falling. When patients use Nordic walking poles, posture and flexibility improve."

Knap concurs: "The poles square my shoulders and lift my head so I'm not hunched over and looking down when I walk."

Jim King, professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ontario, has been an avid pole walker since 2012. King uses the poles to help manage symptoms of Parkinson's disease. "Walking with poles also helps me to stand up straight and helps to correct the round shoulders commonly associated with using a walker," he says.

Research backs up King's experience. A 2008 Dutch study published in the Journal of Movement Disorders tracked subjects living with Parkinson's disease who did Nordic pole walking for up to 5 months. Results showed significant gains immediately after the exercise training period and 5 months post‐study, with major improvements in timed walking, quality of life, the 6‐minute walking test and the "get‐up‐and‐go" test (capacity to rise from a chair, walk 3 meters, turn around, walk back and sit down). Based on their results, researchers suggested that "Nordic walking could provide a safe, effective and enjoyable way to reduce physical inactivity in Parkinson's disease [patients]" (Van Eijkeren et al. 2008).

The Case for Going Nordic

With so many benefits, it's easy to see why Nordic pole walking has become the fastest‐growing physical exercise for older adults in North America, and why instructors like Anne‐Marie May of Mississauga, Ontario, enjoy teaching it. "Seeing the increased energy and transformations in beginners delights my heart," May says. "We give walkers hope and confidence that they can be strong and fit like they once were."

Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that Nordic pole walking can transform lives. As Greg Bellamy of Nordixx Canada adds, "What other physical activity is so affordable, effective, portable and easy to learn?" Ask any avid pole walker that question and you'll probably hear, "There isn't one!"

It's just that good and that much fun.

RESEARCH CONFIRMS VALUE OF NORDIC WALKING

In 2012, researchers in Finland and the U.S. investigated pole walking's potential benefits for sedentary older adults. As people age, they lose muscular strength, endurance and flexibility, sapping their ability to walk, balance, push, pull and carry (Hickey et al. 1996). This study looked at whether Nordic walking poles can turn things around. Study participants did a range of exercises:

  • a chair‐stand test to determine lower‐body strength
  • an arm‐curl test to determine upper‐body strength
  • a chair sit‐and‐reach test to evaluate lower‐extremity flexibility
  • a back‐scratch test for upper‐body flexibility
  • a 2‐minute step‐in‐place test to quantify aerobic capacity

Test results found improvement in all categories except the back‐scratch test. Researchers concluded that "Nordic walking contributes to positive changes in functional capacity after only 9 weeks" (Parkatti, Perttunen & Wacker 2012).

A 2013 study found similar gains. American and Japanese researchers compared the effects of Nordic walking with those of conventional fitness walking and resistance‐band exercise for older‐adult fitness. The researchers concluded that "Nordic walking provided the best well‐rounded benefits by improving upper‐body strength, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility." They added that "Nordic walking is recommended as an effective and efficient mode of concurrent exercise to improve overall functional fitness in older adults" (Takeshima et al. 2013).

Nordic pole walking has also been shown to improve weight management. As aging slows metabolism and accelerates loss of muscle mass, many older adults struggle with their weight and the associated chronic conditions resulting from being overweight. As an antidote to obesity, Nordic pole walking is a highly effective way to burn more calories.

Korean researchers investigated whether Nordic pole walking, as compared with conventional walking, improved body composition and lipid profile. They found that women in the Nordic pole walking group showed a significant decrease in body mass index (BMI)—from 24.5 kg/m2 preintervention to 24.0 kg/m2 postintervention—while the normal walking group showed a much smaller reduction, from 23.2 kg/m2 to 23.0 kg/m2. Body fat percentage among Nordic Pole walkers declined from 34.2% to 32.9%, while those who walked without poles showed a slightly smaller decline, from 31.9% to 30.7% (Song et al. 2013).

A FEW FACTS ON OLDER ADULTS
  • In 2014, people 65 and older made up 14.5% of the U.S. population, a percentage expected to reach 21.7% by 2040 (AOA 2016).
  • Less than 20% of adults over 65 meet the 2008 federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic and strength training activities (CDC 2016).
  • More than one‐third of adults 65 and over were obese in 2007-2010 (CDC 2012).

References

AOA (Administration on Aging). 2016. Aging statistics. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed Dec. 5, 2016. www.aoa.acl.gov/aging_statistics.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2012. Prevalence of obesity among older adults in the United States, 2007‐2010. NCHS Data Brief, 106. Accessed Dec. 5, 2016. www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db106.htm.

CDC. 2016. Early release of selected estimates based on data from the 2015 National Health Interview Survey. National Health Interview Survey Early Release Program, p. 48. Accessed Dec. 5, 2016. www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/earlyrelease201605.pdf.

Hickey, T., et al. 1996. Exercise participation in a frail elderly population. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 7 (3), 219-31.

INWA (International Nordic Walking Federation). 2013. The history of Nordic walking. Accessed Dec. 5, 2016. www.inwa‐nordicwalking.com/the‐history‐of‐nordic‐walking/.

Parkatti, T., Perttunen, J., & Wacker, P. 2012. Improvements in functional capacity from Nordic walking: A randomized‐controlled trial among elderly people. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 20 (1), 93-105.

Song, M.S., et al. 2013. Effects of nordic walking on body composition, muscle strength, and lipid profile in elderly women. Asian Nursing Research, 7 (1), 1-7.

Takeshima, N., et al. 2013. Effects of nordic walking compared to conventional walking and band‐based resistance exercise on fitness in older adults. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 12 (3), 422-30.

Van Eijkeren, F.J., et al. 2008. Nordic walking improves mobility in Parkinson's disease. Movement Disorders, 23 (15), 2239-43.

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Lorne Opler, MEd

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