As of the early 1970's avid cross country skiers of Finland have been engaging in a cross-training technique to keep themselves strong and fit through the summer months....Nordic Pole Walking. Nordic Pole Walking (NPW), Exerstriding, Urban Pole Walking, or Ski Walking, as it is known, has been popular in much of Europe with the general population for decades already. In fact, in Germany, private insurance companies provide reimbursement for the price of the equipment, recognizing the wide scope of health benefits provided by the activity. Pole fitness walking is slowly gaining popularity in North America in the last several years. In typical North American fashion, we were slow to adopt this method of walking for fear that in using a "walking aide" we may have appeared fragile, weak or unfit. The reality is, walking with poles, when done properly, can be an excellent way to either kick up our fitness level a notch or two or it can assist us with walking if we have some physical limitations. As a physiotherapist, I love this type of flexibility in use and application as it means that it is a tool that can continue to serve us well despite our changing circumstances and abilities.
While it is true that NPW has been used to assist in the rehabilitation of patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (Emphysema, Fibrosis), Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's, Fibromyalgia and Arthritis, its fitness benefits extend far beyond a rehab model of use. In fact, some enthusiasts have referred to Ski Walking as "Pilates in movement" due to the increased use of the core muscles when done properly. One physiotherapist in Toronto has used NPW with her triathlon competitors in order to improve their three dimensional use of core muscles. She reports that her triathletes notice greater engagement of their trunk muscles with swimming, running and biking as a result of this cross-training method. In other words, her triathletes have "grooved" the motor patterns for core engagement while pole walking, and this new neural network or brain pathway has transferred over to their more complex and physically intense sporting activities.
The poles are sized to fit your stride and your height. There is a particular method to be utilized, so it is advisable to seek the guidance of a licensed practitioner or certified instructor to ensure proper technique. When proper technique is employed, pole walking has been demonstrated to:
- burn 20-45 % more calories than regular walking
- incorporate 90 % of the muscles of the body, including upper body
and core muscles
- reduce stress on hips and knees by up to 30 %
- improve posture, balance and coordination
- allow you increase your physical exertion without perceiving the increase in physical exertion
It is important to purchase proper poles. Your ski poles, trekking or hiking poles will not work the same and may lead to overuse injuries in the wrists or upper body. Mountain Equipment Coop carries an assortment of poles, as does Diamond Medical Supplies. There are several online sources as well. Most urban pole brands have a spike at the bottom for walking on grass and trails. The spike is covered with a rubber boot tip that grips sidewalks and indoor surfaces. It is advisable to disclose any physical limitations to the retailer when purchasing your poles (arthritic hands, balance issues, etc) as the different brands offer a variety of models that are better suited to certain user populations.
Physiotherapists tend to stick to a couple of brands that are reliable and rehab-friendly as well as fitness-friendly. These brands include Urban Poling, Nordixx and Exerstrider.
Whether you are looking to boost your fitness, recruit your core, cross-train with a low impact sport, or assist your tired old body with its arthritic knees and hips, it is worthwhile to consider adding this fantastic outdoor activity to your fitness regimen
(photograph by Rod Innes, Powell River, British Columbia)
Live Well and Stay Strong !