Nordic Walking: Is It the Best Workout for Seniors?

You've likely seen older adults walking in a group or by themselves with what look like ski poles, but there's no snow! More commonly referred to as Nordic walking, it is an exercise that originated in Finland to keep skiers in shape in the warmer months.

Key takeaways:

Nordic walking, also known as pole walking, is now quite popular worldwide with all ages participating, but it offers older adults particular advantages to reach their optimum level of health. Is it the best workout for older adults?

What is Nordic walking?

We know that exercise is essential, especially as we age. Regular exercise is valuable not only for our physical health but it aids for promoting good mental health. We may see a reduction in depression and improved sleep quality in older adults engaging in regular activity. Besides, regular exercise can reduce the risk of cognitive impairment or dementia. But finding a suitable form of exercise and the time to do it as an older adult may be easier than previously thought.

Nordic walking (NW) is a low-impact exercise using specially designed poles, like ski poles. Initially known as "ski walking," this exercise originated in Finland as a training exercise for cross-country skiers in the warmer months. The addition of poles helps to provide support and balance. In addition, pushing down the pole with each stride develops upper body strength and flexibility. NW became very popular in European countries in the 1970s and has since gained popularity in North America.

Nordic walking vs trekking – is it the same?

Nordic walking is also different than trekking in terms of equipment and method. Trekking is a hiking sport through rougher terrain, and the poles may also be heavier than Nordic poles. In addition, you position poles in front of the body when trekking, whereas poles for NW contact the ground surface behind the body with a "striding" technique. However, you can practice NW with trekking poles if you choose to do so.

Benefits of Nordic walking

  • Improves health. A study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology reported that NW significantly improved and prolonged the participant's functional capacity compared to other high-intensity exercise forms. Functional capacity includes the physical, mental, and emotional abilities to perform daily activities.
  • Cardiovascular health. There is a reduction in cholesterol levels and improved cardiovascular fitness when people engage in NW.
  • Easier to do. NW is a form of exercise that isn't perceived as strenuous as others but still offers the cardiovascular benefits of a more vigorous workout.
  • Low impact. NW is a low-impact exercise that is easy on your joints, so people with osteoarthritis and other musculoskeletal impairments may take part.
  • Better mental health. Improved mood and mental status are advantages of NW since you exercise outdoors and often in the company of other people. The study from the Canadian Journal of Cardiology also measured depression which demonstrated improvement with exercise.
  • Burns calories. When someone practices Nordic walking, they burn 18-67% more calories than regular walking without poles and provide an upper and lower body workout that would not happen on a regular walk.
  • Overall exercise. With proper technique, NW exercises up to 90% of the body's muscle mass.
  • Reduces joint pain. NW can also improve a person's balance and reduces pain in joints and muscles.

Who can participate in Nordic walking?

Almost anyone at any age can enjoy NW, but consulting with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise program is essential to provide the best possible benefit for your health.

NW may be particularly beneficial for older adults with chronic illnesses. Studies show improvement in cardiopulmonary function, functional status, and motor ability with regular NW activity. Participating in NW has more advantages to overall health than regular walking for people with chronic conditions such as heart disease, fibromyalgia, and COPD. A 2022 study at the University of Nevada found that people with prosthetic limbs improve their gait by progressing stride length and stability with NW as part of their rehabilitation.

Who shouldn't do Nordic walking?

NW is an exercise that is relatively safe for most people. However, there may be a few instances that someone should exercise extreme caution or choose not to participate. Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise program, including Nordic walking.

People with balance issues, such as Parkinson's Disease, vertigo, or other chronic illness with gait instability, may need to exercise caution or not partake in NW due to the risk of falling.

Many countries are members of the International Nordic Walking Federation, including the American Nordic Walking Association. The ANWA has a website with up-to-date information on instructions and techniques for walking with poles.

Overcoming objections to exercise

Lives are busy as we age with work and family, so older adults can come up with several reasons why they don't have the time or energy to develop an exercise program. However, NW may be able to address those barriers to help improve overall health and well-being.

ObjectionObjection to exerciseNordic walking solution
TimeWhether older adults still work at a regular job or lead a busy retirement lifestyle, they still may feel that finding the time to exercise is a challenge.You don't need to spend much time participating in NW to benefit from the overall body workout. Start walking 15-20 minutes a day, three times a week, and gradually work up as you can.
AgeAs we age, we may have more physical limitations as older adults. Our bodies may be stiff and sore from arthritis or other chronic health conditions. As we age, we may think we need to be in shape to start something new.NW is ideal for older adults even if they have not been previously active in an exercise program. Always consult with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise program
MoneyOlder adults may be on a fixed income or not want to spend the money on something for themselves, like a gym membership.NW is a relatively inexpensive activity. You can purchase poles for around $20 on Amazon or at a sports store. You may spend $100 to $200 for a higher-end product; the choice is yours. Also, include a good pair of walking shoes.
LocationDepending on where they live, an older adult may be far from a facility or organization with an exercise program.You can participate in NW in your community even if there is no formal exercise program. For example, you can walk alone or with a group for a fun social activity.
FearAn older adult may have the motivation to exercise but is reluctant to begin due to fear of injury, falling, or lack of information to engage in an exercise safely.NW is relatively safe, with few injuries reported. There may still be a risk of falling, but you will have better balance than walking without poles.

Regular exercise is essential for older adults to benefit their physical and mental well-being. NW provides a safe and excellent low-impact exercise for older adults with few risks. Therefore, NW is one of the best options for exercise in older adults. Before beginning a new exercise program, consult your healthcare provider, and start slow. You are more apt to continue a new habit if you have a friend or family member join you. Together you can build endurance to achieve your optimum level of health.

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