Few activities have as much to say for themselves as walking does. It’s suitable for anyone age 2 to 100. You can meditate and gain peace while ambling around, or you can socialize and laugh while you walk with friends. Beyond suitable shoes, you don’t need elaborate gear or training.
Even that’s a minimal requirement if you are fairly healthy with good balance. I confess to regular five-mile hikes in flip flops, although it’s usually sturdy sandals. That said, sneaker-style walking shoes are probably a better choice. Do as I say, and all that…
If you live in a neighborhood like mine, walking can seem a little undemanding for physical activity. Where I live, riding a bike requires the purchase of skin-tight neon spandex clothes. Golf, beyond clubs, requires pastels and a different kind of clothes. Yoga, it seems simply cannot be done in cargo shorts and a snug tee shirt for modesty while doing shoulder stands.
Sometimes, I wonder what my mother was thinking, letting me grow up wearing the same kind of shorts and tops for working in the garden, biking, horseback riding, sailing, camping, and playing softball.
So if you feel walking doesn’t offer nearly enough shopping potential, I am glad to tell you that you can buy something special for your next walk to make it better—a set of Nordic poles.
The difference between regular walking and pole walking comes down to muscle engagement. According to Dr. Klaus Schwanbeck, regular walking uses 45% of the muscles in your body, almost all in the lower body. Pole walking uses 90% and engages the upper body as well. He claims that this also increases cardiovascular benefits by 22% compared to regular walking and burns 46% more calories.
The increase in calories burned is incentive enough for many of us, but for people who are recovering from back surgery or anyone prone to lower back pain, walking with a pair of Nordic poles is more comfortable as well. Poles help you offload weight from your lower body—the hips, knees, and lower back—and transfers it to the upper body. That not only eases pain in the lower body but also increases the beneficial exercise in the upper body.
One older woman claims Nordic pole walking went beyond the known benefits to core and abdominal muscles and helped erase back fat and upper arm flab.
Anecdotes like this are encouraging, but we also have research confirming the benefits. Researchers at the University of Montreal recruited 128 walkers age 60 and older. Half undertook a 12-week program of Nordic pole walking. The rest served as a control group. The pole walkers gained significant strength in legs and arms. Those in the control group who did not exercise showed a measured loss in grip strength and walking speed after 12 weeks. That’s not so surprising, but the Nordic pole walkers also showed some improvement in cognitive function.
Another group of researchers put pole walkers on a treadmill then used electromyography to see what was happening in the muscles. When they raised the angle of the treadmill, the regular walkers and the pole walkers used their muscles alike. But when they sped it up, the pole walkers experienced more activation in the external oblique (EO) and rectus abdominus (RA) muscles.
The EO runs along your side and waistline from just below the ribcage to the top of the pelvis. The RA is the muscle that gives superfit young men and women washboard abs.
There’s another subtle benefit that’s worth mentioning, too. Walking with a cane might be a good idea for many older people and anyone of any age with hip, knee, ankle or foot problems that might interfere with their stability. But a cane looks “old,” and hence a lot of people refuse to adopt the habit even if it would be a good idea. Walking with TWO canes, called Nordic poles, however, looks pretty darn sexy.
So young or old, in need of support or not, there’s a lot to be said for taking up pole walking.
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