Is Nordic Pole Walking Right For You?
4 Benefits according to the Mayo Clinic:
- The arm movement associated with walking poles adds intensity to your aerobic workout, which helps you burn more calories.
- Walking poles improve balance and stability.
- Walking poles help you maintain proper posture, especially in the upper back, and may help to strengthen upper back muscles.
- Walking poles reduce the load on your lower back, hips and knees, which may be helpful if you have arthritis or back problems.
A recent case study demonstrated a 26 – 34 % REDUCTION in medial and lateral contact force during stance phase when using long hiking poles and wide pole placement for a subject with knee osteoarthritis (J Orthop Res. 2013 Mar;31(3):434-40.).
Additionally, an improvement was seen in cued reaction time or cognitive tasks associated with movement in persons with Parkinson’s disease (Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2014 May;95(5):996-9).
From this reading, I am concluding that Nordic Pole Walking could be useful for both the orthopedic and neurological patient populations as well as the generally healthy population. However, as with most research there is some conflicting evidence about Nordic Pole Walking actually increasing shock impacts and Ground Reaction Force levels compared with regular walking, particularly at heel strike. This may need to be taken in to account for certain persons, for example, with heel spurs or plantarfasciitis. (Res Q Exerc Sport. 2015 Mar;86(1):94-9.)
My Experience So Far
So with this information in hand, I recently went out in search of poles. Some internet research had already told me that there were different tip styles, various grip shapes and materials available, differing weights and colors but the one constant seemed to be price, with little variation from $89 – 129.
My first stop was at a outdoor sports store. Here the poles were all lightweight, came with spike ends (rubber tips for urban use sold separately), had wrist straps, and were generally closer to the $129 mark.
My second stop was at a home health store. There was a lot of variety here. I spent 15-20 minutes trying out all the various models. I would suggest each individual do the same as what felt comfortable and natural to me is probably not the same for you.
I chose the Urbanpole 300. The hand grip was very comfortable and allows for pressure down through the hand into the pole. The main injury listed in the poling research I had done was thumb injuries from wrist straps during falls. This pole has no strap.
I thought from the pictures that I would prefer the larger round tip feet but after trying them all out, I chose the elongated slanted feet. The other benefit to this pole was it came with an instructional DVD. I did learn a few pointers from watching it and feel that I would like to take a class to learn more.
There was one set of inexpensive poles at $32 a pair in stock, but I found the entire pole to be quite rigid with no compression of the tip to absorb shock or vibration. As always, you get what you pay for. I spent some time “practicing” in my living room that afternoon. The next morning, I headed out for my first pole walking experience. Due to spring weather conditions, the sidewalk was alternately wet, icy, sandy, gravelly or dry. The poles certainly gave me a feeling of increased confidence and balance on the sandy and slippery surfaces.
As a physiotherapist, I have spent my career training people with various disabilities how to walk. I have collected walking data using sophisticated 3D-analysis systems and pressure sensitive mats. Thus, it was relatively easy for me to fall into the alternating arm to opposite leg pattern needed for effective pole walking. The main difference is the angle of the poles to the ground; they are not brought as far forward as when using canes or crutches. The slanted backward pressure through the poles seemed to encourage more scapular retraction (shoulder blades back) and trunk extension (straightening your back) than I was expecting. I can see how this could activate postural muscles when done correctly. As always when trying something new, I chose to start slowly and only go for about 30 minutes over flat terrain. When I finished, I did feel some mid-back discomfort, probably from using some muscles that I am not used to. I will monitor this over the next few weeks to ensure I am not aggravating anything in my thoracic or lumbar spine. If I am unsure, I will get another physiotherapist to analyze how I am walking with the poles and clear up any technique issues I may be having.
Also, I am continuing to investigate taking a course on pole walking from a more experienced pole walker. I have been in email contact with the inventor of the Activator pole who happens to be an occupational therapist from North Vancouver. As I learn more about this intriguing fitness trend, I will try to share this information with our patients.
If you are interested in attending a session to learn about pole walking, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we let you know about any upcoming opportunities.
Submitted by Cari Cooke, PT, B.Sc.P.T