Fitness trend: Nordic walking

Walking with Nordic poles burns more calories and works more muscles than conventional walking.

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.

Benefits

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.)

Techniques

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.

Getting started

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.

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