On a bright winter morning, sunlight shines through a grove of poplar trees onto bare snow. The silence of the landscape is interrupted only briefly by a puffed-up chickadee trying to stay warm. Mandy Johnson picks up her walking poles and pushes forward down the path, the snow crunching under her feet. Never one to shy away from physical activity, her cheeks are rosy in the crisp morning air.
“Most people know how to walk. And this is really just the enhanced version of walking,” says Judy Boivin.
“I find that you’re burning more calories so you’re staying super warm. I’ve been out with my poles in minus thirty plus the wind chill,” says Johnson. As a master trainer and ambassador with Urban Poling, a national organization dedicated to Nordic walking, Johnson spends much of her time enjoying the fresh air, regardless of season. The use of Nordic walking poles provides increased stability and results in decreased sprains and strains from slipping on ice.
First identified as a training method for cross-country skiers in Finland, Nordic walking was popularized across Europe throughout the 1980s. But over the past decade it has been gaining popularity throughout North America – and that’s because it’s easy to pick-up. The basic principle of the sport is to increase stability and muscle engagement through the use of walking poles. The poles are used to push off with each step, and in doing so engage the upper body, abdominals and legs.
“Poling is good for everyone, especially for people that are sedentary and need to be more active,” says Johnson. “There’s really no better activity that they could do.”
Since 2008, Johnson has been working with Urban Poling to train Nordic walking instructors and introduce people to this low-impact, high-result activity. Over the last few years, she has seen increased interest across Alberta as more research is being done into the sport’s benefits.
“I have a degree in physical education, so once I put the poles in my hands, I was immediately taken with the benefits,” says Johnson. “In normal walking you use about 40 per cent of your body. When you add the poles and use the correct technique to engage your body, the number goes to upwards of 90 per cent. It’s just a super-effective exercise by taking very gentle steps.”
After having a total knee replacement in 2006, Johnson sought out a safe, engaging activity that would allow her to enjoy the outdoors. The use of Nordic walking poles created a total-body exercise and the safety and stability offered by the poles makes for an accessible, relatively easy activity for people looking to become more active without spending hours at a gym.
“It is so beneficial for people with various conditions. For people who are less active, it’s hard to get them to get into a regular program of lifting weights or going to the gym. Nordic walking is just: go walking and use these poles. You get to use so many of your muscles, strengthen your core and burn more calories,” says Johnson. “But to me what’s really underrated is the benefit of being outside in the open air. Being out in such a pleasant atmosphere, seeing sunsets and sunrises and the smell of the air. It improves your peace of mind; you even sleep better.”
“I find that you’re burning more calories so you’re staying super warm. I’ve been out with my poles in minus thirty plus the wind chill,” says Mandy Johnson.
The use of poles transfers some of the body’s weight into the upper body, relieving stress on lower joints. As a result, Nordic walking is an ideal activity for those suffering from arthritis, recovering from surgery or dealing with past injuries. Due to the increased muscle use, perfectly healthy individuals may also find benefits in Nordic walking.
“It changes the whole body,” says Johnson. “In a kilometre you will take between 1,200 and 1,300 steps. That means when you’re walking with a pole you will have contracted your abdominals 1,200 to 1,300 times. And your arms and shoulders over 500 times.”
“Most people know how to walk. And this is really just the enhanced version of walking,” says Judy Boivin, clinical lead for cancer rehabilitation at LifeMark Centric Health. Boivin is a major proponent of the benefits of Nordic walking, not just for healthy individuals but for cancer patients as well. As a physiotherapist and cancer survivor, Boivin has seen first-hand the remarkable improvements that Nordic walking poles can offer.
“There’s a lot to deal with following cancer,” says Boivin. “Individuals are told they need to do more exercise, but many cancer patients have difficulty achieving that exercise goal for a variety of reasons. A lot of them are exhausted from the treatment, but there are many other issues like balance impairment and neuropathy.”
Studies done in the past decade have shown that the use of Nordic walking poles can help with pain management and counteract fatigue for cancer patients. The poles also help to restore mobility and improve strength in the upper body for breast cancer patients.
“There are ways to improve cancer-specific side-effects like lymphedema, which produces swelling in the arm and is common following the treatment of breast cancer. Nordic walking is an ideal exercise because of the pumping actions you do with your arms,” says Boivin.
Like with any exercise program, Boivin recommends cancer patients check with a licensed health professional before getting started. As Nordic walkers can adjust the intensity of their workout, a health professional will be able to develop a customizable program that meets the health history and requirements for each individual. The role of rehabilitation providers in cancer recovery is not only to protect patients from potentially strenuous activity, but also to encourage them to work at the right pace to get the optimal results.
“Ensuring that individuals have been screened for any potential safety concerns is important,” says Boivin, “but I would say the majority of cancer patients are fearful of doing anything that’s going to make them worse. As rehabilitation professionals, we hold their hands and encourage them to get going. Once they gain some confidence, they’re off.” LifeMark Centric Health has specially trained cancer rehabilitation therapists in 62 clinic locations across Canada, 11 of them in Alberta.
When compared with other sports, the costs for getting started with Nordic walking are quite minimal. Nordic walkers only require a comfortable, sturdy pair of walking shoes and a set of poles. As the only major investment, these poles are often priced around $100 and are available at many outdoor sporting goods stores. The poles differ from traditional ski poles in that they have been designed for use in an upright walking position. A removable rubber tip on the end of the pole allows for use on paved paths, while the sturdier metal tip underneath can provide stability on more rugged terrain, like hiking trails.
For those wanting to try the sport prior to buying the poles, many Nordic walking clubs offer rentals or have try-out sessions to learn more about the sport. Some of Alberta’s smaller communities, including Canmore, Chestermere, Okotoks and High River even have Nordic walking poles available for rent from public libraries.
“We want people to try it, and when they do, their eyes kind of open in amazement. And they’re usually sold,” says Johnson. “It’s the kind of thing where once you’ve tried it, you’re hooked.
Pole Picking 101
When choosing the right walking pole, there are a few technical aspects to consider.
Do you want straps? Some experts argue that going strapless is better for form and strength. Others say the strap helps walkers push off with better form. Luckily, some poles come with a detachable option.
Consider your height: Poles come in both adjustable and fixed versions, and to calculate the height you need, use this formula: (your height in centimetres) x (0.68). For fixed-length poles, round up or down to the nearest five centimetres to determine the length you need.
How light can you go: All Nordic walking poles are made from lightweight materials. While carbon is considered the best material, high-end options include aluminum alloy poles that are lightweight while also strong as steel.
Handling it: Most handles are made out of plastic or foam, which are long-lasting, but cork handles are also beneficial because they are absorbent and easier to grip.