Nordic walking is growing in popularity for both its cardio and strength-training benefits.
Along with getting your heart rate up, Nordic walking is a full-body exercise that uses special poles to activate your upper body as you walk.
It’s also a great workout for those who have joint issues such as arthritis.
This article explains all you need to know about Nordic walking, including its benefits, proper technique, and helpful tips.
Having originated in Finland, Nordic walking is a low impact exercise that involves the use of special walking poles.
Similarly to cross-country skiing, a person uses the poles behind them as an extension of their arm to match their foot stride. The use of these poles helps activate upper-body muscles for a full-body workout (
However, it’s different from walking or hiking with poles for balance and stability. During these activities, the poles are held in front of your body to improve balance.
Contrarily, Nordic walking poles are held behind you — almost like an extension of your arm. With each step, you apply force to the pole to help propel your body forward faster, helping increase the workout intensity without increasing the impact on your joints.
Nordic walking is a style of walking that uses special poles to increase speed and target your upper-body muscles.
There are many benefits to Nordic walking.
Nordic walking may be a good alternative to traditional forms of cardio exercise for those with joint pain or arthritis.
While walking, the poles help redistribute weight and can help reduce joint loading and increase muscular strength. This may help reduce the pain that typically comes with prolonged high impact exercise, such as running (
Though some people may find using the poles beneficial, some research argues there’s little difference between traditional walking and Nordic walking when it comes to impact on the joints (
Good for heart health
Nordic walking is an excellent low impact option for those wishing to increase their cardiovascular fitness.
Despite this, Nordic walking appears to only slightly increase your rate of perceived exhaustion (RPE) compared with traditional walking — meaning you don’t notice a large difference in intensity despite your body working harder (
In one small review of eight studies in people with heart disease, those in Nordic walking programs showed significantly improved exercise capacity, exercise duration, and oxygen uptake compared with those in standard cardiac rehabilitation programs (
Another study in heart failure patients showed significant improvements in V̇O₂ max (a measure of lung capacity), in exercise duration, and on a 6-minute walking test in those who participated in a Nordic walking program, compared with the control group (
Nordic walking targets the muscles of the upper and lower body, making it an excellent full-body workout.
Both traditional walking and Nordic walking use lower-body muscles, such as the calves, hamstrings, buttocks, and quadriceps. Interestingly, Nordic walking appears to activate these muscles more effectively (
In addition, the use of Nordic walking poles helps activate the upper-body muscles, such as the latissimus dorsi (lats), trapezii (traps), forearm flexors, pectoralis majors, deltoids, and triceps. It’s also more effective at targeting your abdominal muscles (
In fact, one study found that office workers who practiced Nordic walking for 12 weeks had greater shoulder mobility and reduced pain in their traps, lats, and infraspinatus (a part of the rotator cuff) (
Interestingly, one study found that Nordic walking does not activate the erector spinae (lower back) muscles as much as traditional walking. Therefore, for those with lower back tension, Nordic walking may be a better option (
May improve balance and functional abilities
Nordic walking may be a better alternative to traditional walking for older adults.
One 10-week study in older adults observed significant improvements in balance, functional mobility, and endurance in the Nordic walking group, while no improvements were found in the traditional walking group (
Another review of studies found Nordic walking to be more effective at improving quality of life, dynamic balance, muscle strength of the lower body, and aerobic capacity (
Finally, a study in 135 people with coronary artery disease found Nordic walking led to greater improvements in functional capacity (the ability to complete functions of life or work) compared with high intensity interval training and moderate-to-vigorous intensity continuous training (
Burns more calories than traditional walking
Nordic walking may burn up to 20% more calories than traditional walking (
In fact, one 9-month study including 77 university students showed an 18% greater reduction in fat mass compared with those in the control group, who engaged in regular exercise based on the university’s curriculum (
Nordic walking helps improve your cardiovascular health, increases strength in your upper and lower body, and burns more calories than traditional walking.
In fact, low intensity and low impact exercise may be just as good of an option for those with arthritis. One study showed that this type of exercise was as effective as high intensity exercise at reducing arthritis pain (
Another study found that Nordic walking increases hip range of motion, stride length, and functional fitness in those with osteoarthritis. Furthermore, it was shown to significantly reduce perceived pain compared with home-based exercises (
While arthritis pain may require multiple interventions (e.g., medication and physical therapy), incorporating Nordic walking is a cost-effective, low impact exercise that may help alleviate arthritis pain.
Nordic walking is a low impact cardio and strength-building exercise that may help alleviate arthritis pain.
For most people, Nordic walking is a safe and effective form of exercise.
That said, if you have any injuries or have been advised to avoid certain forms of exercise, you should speak with your healthcare professional first.
What’s more, it may take time to get used to walking with Nordic poles. Therefore, it’s best to try Nordic walking on flat terrain before moving on to uneven terrain or hills.
Finally, practicing proper technique will ensure you’re using the poles correctly and activating the right muscle groups.
Unless your healthcare professional advises against it, Nordic walking is safe for most people.
Beyond wearing proper walking shoes, all you need for Nordic walking are Nordic walking poles.
You’ll want to make sure that you’re purchasing proper Nordic walking poles, since they’re specially designed for the unique walking and hand-grip techniques used in Nordic walking.
The poles are lightweight (around 0.5 pounds, or 0.23 kg) and have a small grip with removable hand straps. These straps help position your hands properly and keep the poles from falling.
With Nordic walking, your hands are not fully gripped around the pole and left mostly open. As you walk, you hold the poles behind your body — almost as if you’re dragging them behind you. Therefore, having the right straps is very important for proper technique.
Additionally, Nordic walking poles usually come with rubber and steel tips. The rubber sits on top of the steel tips and is ideal for flat surfaces like asphalt. These tips can be removed to reveal pointy steel tips, which are useful for uneven terrains, such as hiking trails or grass.
This is different from ski or hiking poles, which usually have much larger grips and wrist straps on the upper parts of the grips. These are not designed for Nordic walking and will prevent you from reaping the full-body benefits that this exercise provides.
For best results, make sure you’re using proper Nordic walking poles, which have special wrist straps and grips.
To get the most out of your exercise, you’ll want to make sure you’re walking with proper technique. Here’s how to do it:
- Stand tall with your shoulders relaxed, chest up, and eyes looking straight forward.
- Hold a pole in each hand on a diagonal angle backward (they should be angled so the base of the pole is behind you). Your hand should lightly grip the pole.
- As you take a step forward with your left foot, bring the right pole forward so that the base of the pole lands on the ground to the side of you (do not bring the pole in front of you).
- Push the pole into the ground behind you as you take a step with your right foot. As you fully extend your arm, loosen your grip so that your palm is almost fully open. This allows your arm to go through a larger range of motion and prevents wrist injury.
- As this occurs, bring your right foot and left pole forward (close your grip as the pole lands to push it off of the ground) and continue the motion.
The biggest difference between traditional walking and Nordic walking is the use and positioning of the poles. Always make sure the poles are on an angle and never come in front of you.
Using proper technique will ensure you’re getting the most out of your Nordic walking.
If you enjoy walking but want a greater challenge, you’ll want to try Nordic walking.
Nordic walking uses special poles to allow you to walk faster. Since you’re using your arms to swing the poles, you’re targeting both your upper and lower body for a full-body workout. This also increases your cardiovascular effort without feeling like you’re running a marathon.
It’s also great for those looking for a low impact cardio exercise, such as older adults or those with arthritis or knee pain.
With the right poles and good shoes, you’re ready to get in a great workout with Nordic walking.