What is Nordic Walking? How to Use Walking Poles for a Full-Body, Heart-Healthy Workout

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Walking is having a moment. From hot girl walks to the 12-3-30 workout, walking is the latest fitness trend. But have you ever heard of Nordic walking? Imagine cross-country skiing but lose the skis, keep the poles, and walk instead. Nordic walking is not new, but it may be your new favorite workout.

What is Nordic walking?

Nordic walking is a full-body, low-impact workout that consists of walking using specialized poles. When done correctly, it can engage up to 90% of your muscles and offer an intense cardiovascular and strength-training workout, according to experts. 

“The basic concept is you add upper body activity in the context of using Nordic poles, or walking poles, to assist with moving forward when you’re walking,” Dr. Aaron Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, told TODAY. Think of it as a way to enhance your typical walks by involving more muscles.

As the name suggests, this form of walking is popular in Nordic countries and originated in Finland, Jennifer Reed, Ph.D., director of the Exercise Physiology and Cardiovascular Health Laboratory at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, told TODAY. While it’s often associated with hiking, Reed said, Nordic walking or “urban poling” can be done by anyone, anywhere — as long as there is room to walk.

Woman hiking in park
To properly Nordic walk, let your arms move as they naturally would when walking, with poles in hand.
Yashoda / Getty Images

How do you Nordic walk?

The key is to not overcomplicate it, the experts noted. The technique involves walking holding each pole alongside your body and moving the poles in opposition to your legs so they are at a 45-degree angle, according to the American Nordic Walking Association (ANWA) which has a free beginner’s guide on their website. 

“Think about what the normal arm swing would be if you were walking without poles and accentuate that with the poles in your hand. In doing so, the poles come up into a vertical position with each foot strike, they make contact [with the ground] above the foot then you can use them to push forward and accelerate,” Baggish explained. 

You will need poles specifically designed for Nordic walking, which are different from those used for trekking, the experts noted. Nordic walking poles typically have rubber tips on the end, which may be removable, and the grips have wrist straps to keep the poles attached to your hands, according to ANWA

These poles come in a range of prices, the experts said, but the important part is finding poles that are the proper length for your height and grip. Baggish encourages beginners to invest in wrist straps that are higher quality or glove-like, “because they really reduce wrist injury and make the hand a lot more effective as the interface between the body and the pole.”

The proper technique is not difficult to master, the experts said, and once you do, it can offer tremendous benefits. 

The benefits of Nordic walking

Turn walking into a full-body workout

Walking works the lower body — the legs, quads, glutes, calves — but not the upper body, Stephanie Mansour, personal trainer and TODAY contributing health and fitness writer, told TODAY. “Walking with poles turns it into a total-body workout,” Mansour said, because the poles add strength training and cardio components for the upper body, working the arms, shoulders, upper back and core. 

“When you get the poles involved, you really move up to 80 to 90% of the major muscle groups are engaged, so you’re just getting a better workout,” Baggish said. Nordic walking can become even more challenging if you walk faster and engage more with the polls, said Reed, boosting your heart rate.

“The more muscle groups that are engaged meaningfully, the more calories you’re burning per unit time or per distance,” said Baggish, estimating that there is a 40–50% increase in calorie expenditure when people are using their upper body in Nordic walking versus regular walking. “The analogy some people like, which I think can be useful, is the difference between a stair stepper and an elliptical trainer,” said Baggish.

Reduce risk of injury

Another benefit of Nordic walking? The poles can provide stability and prevent falls, the experts noted. “For anyone who’s dealing with fragility or balance issues, I think this is an amazing tool to have in their repertoire,” Baggish said. 

An effective workout for heart patients

Nordic walking is also great for heart health. A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that Nordic walking was superior compared to other exercise methods for improving functional capacity, or the ability to perform physical activities, among heart disease patients. 

“The main purpose of the trial was to look at the impacts of different exercise strategies for adults with cardiovascular disease,” said Reed, adding that researchers wanted to see if one method might be more successful in improving a patient’s long-term functional or exercise capacity, which is strongly linked to future cardiovascular events such as heart attacks.

All of the study participants previously had a cardiovascular event or procedure such as a stent placement, said Reed, who was a co-author of the study. Researchers compared the long-term effects of three different forms of exercise as part of a cardiovascular rehabilitation program: high-intensity interval training (HIIT), moderate-to-vigorous intensity continuous training (MICT) and Nordic walking. 

“Over the course of 12 weeks, Nordic walking actually had superior clinical benefits on exercise capacity than HIIT and MICT … not what we had expected,” said Reed. While all exercise methods improved depression and quality of life among patients, Nordic walking produced the greatest improvement in functional capacity that was maintained over time.

“Nordic walking twice a week over 3 months really helped to improve exercise capacity and these benefits lasted for up to 26 weeks,” said Reed. The study authors concluded that cardiovascular rehabilitation programs can confidently apply Nordic walking. 

These findings are exciting, Reed added, because something as simple and accessible as walking with poles measures up to conventional exercises like HIIT and MICT.

It can help anyone can boost their heart health

While Nordic walking is definitely beneficial for people with heart disease, said Reed, it’s clear that this is a great option for anyone looking for a heart-healthy workout. 

“You can walk a couple times a week and really reap huge clinical benefits when it comes to improving exercise capacity which will translate to reduced risk of cardiovascular events,” said Reed. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“The bottom line is that all of the risk factors that drive heart disease or more specifically coronary disease — things like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes — all of these are improved by physical activity,” said Baggish.

How often should you walk? It depends on the person and their activity level, the experts noted, but any amount of activity is better than being sedentary. The “sweet spot” for most healthy adults is 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity activity, said Baggish, which can be divided up in whatever way people feel comfortable.

Given all the benefits, why isn’t Nordic walking more popular? 

“The Europeans have embraced it far more quickly and far more effectively than we have here in the States,” said Baggish, but there may also be a stigma around Nordic walking among younger people. “People perceive it as something that is geared for older adults. I don’t think they truly understand how intense it can be,” said Reed. 

Most people can safely incorporate Nordic walking into their fitness routine, the experts noted, but as with any new form of exercise, always talk to your doctor first if you have any concerns. 


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