Picture a brilliant blue sky over a vast field of fresh, fluffy snow. The air is crisp and cold, and you’re suited up on skis, ready to propel yourself across the expanse of white for a day of cross-country skiing.
Now imagine that you’re in your own neighborhood, mimicking the motion of cross-country skiing by using poles to push yourself as you walk along a trail or sidewalk. That’s called Nordic walking. It was originally designed as a summer training routine for cross-country skiers. Now Nordic walking is catching on in the United States as an exercise regimen, especially among older adults.
Cardiologist Aaron Baggish is all for it. He just returned from a year of work and study in Switzerland, where he says Nordic walking is a common pastime among older adults. “You go to the train station on Saturdays and there are droves of people over 70 waiting to go up to the mountains to walk with Nordic poles,” says Dr. Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Nordic walking combines cardiovascular exercise with a vigorous muscle workout for your shoulders, arms, core, and legs. “When you walk without poles, you activate muscles below the waist. When you add Nordic poles, you activate all of the muscles of the upper body as well,” Dr. Baggish explains. “You’re engaging 80% to 90% of your muscles, as opposed to 50%, providing a substantial calorie-burning benefit.”
Lots of evidence confirms that Nordic walking burns more calories than regular walking-estimates range from an increase of 18% to 67% more.
Nordic walking is also associated with reductions in fat mass, “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and waist circumference, and increases in “good” HDL cholesterol, endurance, muscle strength and flexibility, walking distance, cardiovascular fitness, and quality of life.
Another benefit: “You’re much more stable when you use poles, because you have more ground contact points and you’re not relying on two feet alone,” Dr. Baggish says.
Plus, Nordic walking is fun. It can be a great social activity if you join one of the Nordic walking clubs popping up across the country. To find one near you, search the Internet or contact your local parks and recreation department.
About the poles
Unlike trekking or hiking poles, which have loose straps that go around your wrists, Nordic poles have a special glove-like system attached to each pole. “You slide your hand into it and use your palm rather than your fingers to transmit power to the poles and move yourself forward,” Dr. Baggish explains.
You’ll find poles in sporting goods stores and online. The poles are available in lightweight aluminum or carbon material; with pointed tips for trails, or rubber tips for sidewalks; and fixed or adjustable heights. Prices range from about $20 to $200 for a pair of poles. (Hint: A set of poles would make a nice holiday present.)
There are several Nordic walking techniques. One is “double poling.” It involves planting both poles symmetrically in front of you and pulling yourself forward as you walk a few steps. “You double pole and then walk three steps. Double pole; one, two, three. Double pole; one, two, three,” Dr. Baggish explains.
Another technique is “single poling,” which mimics what your feet are doing, with just one pole in front of you for each stride. Do this either with the same-side arm and leg together or with the opposite arm and leg together. “The pole and foot will always be striking and propelling at the same time. The difference is whether it’s on the same side or the opposite side,” says Dr. Baggish. He advises starting out with single poling, and gradually building up speed and vigorous arm swinging.
Dr. Baggish says most people are candidates for Nordic walking, even if they have balance problems. In fact, “if you have balance issues you’re the best candidate for this, because of the increased stability from the poles,” he says. “But you should still talk to your doctor first, especially if you have heart disease.”
Once you have the green light and a set of poles, you’ll need a walking route. You can walk on level surfaces or on varied terrain — anything from sidewalks to grassy fields or trails. Safe neighborhoods and parks are ideal.
Some tips for success:
Dress comfortably. Wear clothing that allows lots of arm swinging.
Stay hydrated. “Drink water in advance if you’ll be walking less than an hour. Otherwise, drink along your route,” Dr. Baggish suggests.
Do a 10-minute warm-up and a 10-minute cool-down. Nordic walking is fun, but it’s definitely a workout.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love. Ephesians 3:16-17 NIV
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 1 John 4:12 NIV
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13 NIV
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 1 John 4:20 NIV
Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. Isaiah 43:4 NIV
However, as it is written: What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived — the things God has prepared for those who love him. 1 Corinthians 2:9 NIV
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8 NIV
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 1 John 3:1 NIV
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18 NIV
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 1 Thessalonians 3:12 NIV
Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor. Proverbs 21:21 NIV
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. Ephesians 4:15 NIV
Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs. Proverbs 10:12 NIV
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