Walking to fitness with Nordic poles

Montana Health Journal

nordic walking

Brian Miller demonstrates nordic poles for hiking and walking (David Reese photo)

By THERESE WOOD/Montana Health Journal

Walking might seem too easy or ordinary to make a big difference in your life — but you may be surprised by the health benefits of Nordic walking. 
A new culture of walkers is emerging with the added benefits of using Nordic walking poles, which are similar to ski poles, but designed with a variety of boots to adjust to concrete and natural trails, to ice and snow.

According to Robert Sweetgall, Nordic walking coach and co-author of One Heart Two Feet, Nordic walking has many benefits, including increased stability, a lower- and upper-body workout, and up to a 40 percent increase in calorie burning while walking. Sweetgall says Nordic walking “transforms plain vanilla walking into a total-body workout.” Sweetgall walked across America twice, and he teaches a variety of techniques with the poles that engage all the upper body muscles including abdominals, chest, arms, back, and core muscles. He has traveled across America with his message about the importance of walking, teaching clinics at schools, businesses and senior groups. He has come to Montana’s Flathead Valley a few times to talk about exercise and lifestyle. He was most recently in Montana for Montana Health Journal’s Health Expo in Kalispell in 2014.

Sweetgall says the pole plant while walking is key in achieving the full body workout. The pole-planting arm extends forward, like shaking someone’s hand, and the bottom of the pole is angled back toward your feet. He emphasizes that this gait is with the forward arm on the same side as the foot that is back, pushing off. A firm, but not excessive, push-off with this gait gives the walker a full-body workout, according to Sweetgall. The poles take stress off of your feet, ankles, knees and hips. 
Walking pace should always be according to an individual's ability, Sweetgall says. If you can walk long enough to feel that your breathing is heavier and talking is labored, then you are getting into a good workout. If you can maintain this even for a short period of time, and most importantly do it everyday, or at least three times per week, then you will start to see real benefits, Sweetgall says, but he also recommends health professionals be consulted before you begin a new exercise regiment. 
Dr. Pam Roberts teaches Nordic walking clinics at a Journey to Wellness at the Summit athletic club in Kalispell.

She is an enthusiastic advocate of Nordic walking, especially for people with health challenges. “It is so amazing,” Robert said. “Most people with health problems can do it easily. I see miracles with people who have lost all hope that they can do anything physically active. It is also excellent for those with limited time and those who are tethered to a computer all day and need a gentle workout.” 

Diana Dorris is a walker who attended Sweetgall’s Nordic walking clinics at the Summit last year. She started the program after two hip replacements and was overweight. She was using two canes to walk, and even that was labored because she was so unstable that she kept her eyes on the ground, which caused her to hunch over. Her hips twisted around unnaturally as she walked, she said. The Nordic walking poles immediately changed her posture. “I was finally able to look to look up and see where I was going,” she says, “because with the poles I wasn’t afraid of falling.” She started using the poles instead of her canes from then on. More improvements for Dorris came as she gained confidence in walking with the poles and was able to increase her activity more. 

She performed Nordic walking daily at a local park and started losing weight, which helped stabilize her hips. Then 18 months later she left a note for Dr. Roberts telling her she had lost 100 lbs. since she began walking with the poles. Dorris said she gained a level of normal activity that she thought she would never have again.
Nordic poles range in price from about $30 to $65 for adjustable, higher-end versions.

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