Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Nordic walking

with 4 comments

I’ve now been Nordic walking for a while, and I am extremely happy with it. I used a Nordic Track ski exerciser for years, and I liked it a lot because it provides an excellent full-body workout—but it also requires significant apartment space. I knew, though, that I had to find some way to exercise. My life had become almost totally sedentary, each day going by with me in my chair—reading, writing, watching movies. There’s an unsettling, even alarming, consensus of medical and scientific judgments that a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthful to the point of shortening one’s life. Since I enjoy my life, I’d rather go in the other direction. That meant finding an exercise to do daily.

The best motivation for doing an exercise is that the exercise is enjoyable

The idea of making a necessary task enjoyable has always made sense to me (cf. my guide to DE shaving), and it’s even more important that a repeated task be enjoyable. Exercise is definitely something I (and you) should do — but if it’s not actually enjoyable, doing it becomes difficult. Rather than being pulled to it, one must push himself to do it. That requires willpower, and I like to save that resource for when it is really needed. If I find an exercise that is enjoyable and that attracts me, I won’t need to use any willpower to do it daily because doing it is more fun than not doing it.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, in its guidelines for starting an exercise program, also stresses that your exercise program should be something you enjoy. They write, “Your goal is to establish an exercise routine you enjoy. Make sure your first activity sessions are fun and not tiring.”

Beyond being enjoyable and apartment-compatible, an ideal exercise for me satisfies 5 additional criteria:

  1. I can do it by myself—it doesn’t require other people (team sports or even just, say, a tennis opponent);
  2. I can do it anywhere—it doesn’t require me to go to a special facility (a court or a gym or fitness center or playing field or pool or lake or the like);
  3. I can do it whenever I want—it doesn’t require that I be some particular place at a scheduled time;
  4. I can do it with minimal recurring expense—it doesn’t require a monthly membership fee, for example; and
  5. It’s specifically a cardio exercise. Strength training is fine, and flexibility exercises are good, and balance exercise (standing on one foot while brushing your teeth, for example) are important as you age, but my specific goal is cardiovascular health, and cardio/aerobic exercise is the only route up that particular mountain.

Bicycling was enjoyable, and when I bicycled to work, the activity fitted nicely into my daily routine, but I don’t plan to be biking anywhere (and bicycles also take up a fair amount of apartment space). I did plan to walk (and had already started), and the more I learned about Nordic walking, the more I thought it would make the walk more enjoyable and also a better exercise by engaging the muscles of my upper body. (I find full-body exercise much more enjoyable than exercise that does not involve the full body.) Moreover, a pair of Nordic-walking poles occupies only a tiny amount of apartment space.

In the course of a month of Nordic walking, I found I had gradually increased the walk duration to just over an hour—about 8000 steps—simply because I enjoyed it so much. (My plan originally was to walk for 30 minutes, but now I really enjoy the longer walk.)

Important: I recently realized that I had happened upon something significant in the paragraph above, but it didn’t sink in to the point that I explicitly recognized it. It is this: Focus on consistency (walking every day), and let speed and duration take care of themselves — you don’t need to think about them because they will improve on their own, so long as you are consistent in walking every day. (See this post on the compounding of effect of small but consistent gains: “Many a mite makes a mickle.”)

To achieve consistency, I found the idea of “priority” useful. In the evening, when I think about what’s on my plate for the next day, I say to myself, “Well, my main priority is to take a walk.” And each morning when I awaken, I think “Today’s priority is to take a walk.”

I don’t worry about how fast or how long I walk, but focus solely on making sure that I do take a walk. If I walk every day, then as my strength and my fitness improve, I will gradually find myself walking longer and faster because I feel like it, not because it’s a goal. The only goal is to go for a walk each day. That is the priority.

Update 9/24/2023: The NY Times had a good article on the importance of walking speed (see this post, which has a gift link to the article), and I recently realized the importance of duration. As I resumed walking on 9/1/2023, following a surgery-induced layoff, I began by walking 1.5 miles a day, which over a couple of weeks took first about 28 minutes, then 27 minutes, then 26 minutes. Then I started walking 2 miles a day, and that took around 36 minutes. After 5 days of that I was feeling much stronger — that is, not so tired after the walk — so I went to 2.7 miles, around 46 minutes.

What I think happens is that the training effect (improvement in lung capacity, diaphragm strength, heart strength, blood volume, density of capillary network, muscular strength, and so on) does not start until you have spent a certain amount of time at at least an aerobic level of exertion. (I vaguely recall that, once your heart rate is in the aerobic zone, the training effect starts after 15 minutes.)

Once the training effect begins, after this warm-up period, the benefits start to accrue. If the warm-up period is roughly the same for all those walks, by increasing the duration, I’m increasing the amount of time spent with the training effect active, so improvement in stamina is fairly rapid. That’s my speculation, but I did notice a rapid improvement in stamina once I went from a 26-minute walk to a 36-minute walk, and I’m interested to see what a 46-minute walk will do. (That also implies that quitting the walk too soon means little improvement — for example, quitting 15 minutes after reaching an aerobic heart rate would mean little or no training effect takes place.)

I got to thinking about why Nordic walking is so much more enjoyable for me than regular walking. I think it’s because Nordic walking gives me something to do, as it were. In regular walking, my feet and legs have something to do (walking) but the rest of me is just along for the ride, so I found I needed some sort of distraction—listening to music, for example, or to audiobooks. But because my hands, arms, shoulders, and back are also involved in Nordic walking, I’m more fully engaged, so I no longer need distraction: I actively enjoy the walking itself.

Update 4/23/2022: I recently began using an exercise tracker, which provides a plethora of information about the walk and has resulted in an increase in both motivation and enjoyment. More info at the link. And a further update 9/24/2022: I upgraded the exercise tracker to a better model in the same line.

Sources of information and Nordic-walking poles

Here are some useful links for basic information:

Specific health benefits

There are health benefits in using the poles (and see also this detailed research study), although the primary benefit I sought was to make me look forward to going for a walk. Still, the upper body effects are not negligible; this chart from that research study shows much greater upper-body muscle activity when Nordic walking poles are used:

Screen Shot 2018-07-28 at 12.43.23 PM

Kenneth Cooper, MD, of Aerobics fame, tested Nordic walking and found that it increased the number of calories burned by 20% compared to walking without Nordic walking poles—and “without significantly affecting the rate of perceived exertion by the participants.” Thus in using his table of point values for regular walking, multiply the point values by 1.2 (20% increase) if you are Nordic walking. He recommends a minimum of 35 points per week for men, 27 points per week for women, with the exercises at least 4 days a week and at most 6 days a week. (Note the importance of one rest day a week: it’s possible to overdo cardio exercise.)

UPDATE: 26 Mar 2022 – I got an exercise tracker on 15 Feb, and now have abandoned the Cooper point system. Cooper points only indirectly take into account fitness, for example. My exercise tracker (note: later replaced with this one) does provide information on time and distance, so I can easily figure the Cooper points, but it also tracks heart rate and uses that information, along with my age and sex, to compute a PAI score.

The goal is to keep your PAI at 100 or better. Exercise and even daily activity will earn PAI points, and you can accumulate them. However, points expire after 7 days, so you must maintain a certain level of activity to keep your PAI at 100 or better. It took me 4 days to reach 100 PAI, and since then I have maintained the 100 level. I like the PAI better then Cooper points because the PAI feels like a better measure of my activity effort, and it also easily accommodates light days (short or slow walk) and rest days (no walk). (Still, as noted above, consistency of exercise is key.) As my fitness has improved, I’ve noticed that PAI points are not so easily gained, but I’m also not so tired from the effort. Here’s an example of the readout. /update

My daily Nordic walk (currently 4.1 miles in 1 hour 10-15 minutes), done 6 days a week, adds up to 43.2 points per week if I were simply walking, but since I use Nordic walking polls, it’s 54.7 points (20% more), comfortably above the minimum required for the benefits of the training effect. More details on the aerobic aspect are in the post at the link, along with information on Cooper’s 12-minute fitness test.  Also: note the risks of abruptly curtailing a walking program.

Types of Nordic-walking poles

Nordic-walking poles come in three types (and see also pole considerations):

  • one-section (not adjustable, so you have to buy the right-length pole for you),
  • two-section (adjustable, so the same poles can be used by persons of different height; also useful in determining the ideal length for you), and
  • three-section (same idea as two-section poles but can be collapsed smaller for packing in a suitcase or backpack—trekking poles are virtually always three-section poles because they are often carried in a backpack).

The ideal (IMO) is the one-section pole, and I now have a pair from Exel, the Finnish company that started Nordic walking in the first place. The one-section pole has the pleasing simplicity of no moving parts. The two-section pole seems better than the three-section in terms of vibration and strength, the three-section pole’s only advantage being its shorter length when collapsed. (Three-section poles are often named “Traveler” or the like.)

The foot of the pole is a carbide spike for walking on grass or dirt and a removable (and replaceable) rubber paw for walking on hard surfaces like pavement or tarmac. Exel has an interesting variation: a one-piece all-terrain tip — see video above.

Update: My Komperdell Nordic walking poles just arrived! Update later: And I now have upgraded to Excel Pro Curve poles, which I like a lot.

Update 2: What I learned in my first formal lesson. As is typical of self-taught practitioners, I fell into some common (and easily corrected) errors. And since Nordic walking, like (for example) rowing and swimming, consists of continual repetition of the same actions, any flaws in technique are multiplied by the number of repetitions and thus their cost grows over time. Update: Second lesson and what I learned.

Update 3: I just recently observed that the poles do indeed push one along. Comparing a walk without the poles to a walk earlier in the day when I used the poles, I found that without the poles I walked more slowly and more effort was required.

The video below shows the basics of using the poles, and more instructional videos are on this page.

UPDATE: This is me with my new Exel Pro Curve poles. It’s not evident in the video, but I am pushing back firmly (with my arm straight, so using my shoulders and back) with each step, pushing myself along.

Written by Leisureguy

8 July 2018 at 2:52 pm

4 Responses

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  1. How do I get a pair of Nordic poles in India. I would like to learn Nordic walking

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  2. See the links above. (I don’t know of any dealers in India, but you can search online. You can in some cases order directly from the manufacturer.)

    Like

    LeisureGuy

    30 July 2018 at 9:29 am

  3. Sir, Read with great interest your great write-up and experiences with Nordic Walking and then I heard about Tom Rutlin’s Exerstrider walking. Are you familiar with this and would you recommend one over the other? Thanks for maintaining this wonderful website- I will be sure to visit it often!

    Like

    Usha

    18 September 2020 at 8:19 am

  4. Thank you for your kind comment (and note the “Useful Posts” page in the menu at the right).

    This post explains the difference well. For me, Nordic Walking poles are superior because I don’t have to focus on my grip and the muscles involved in gripping the handle are relaxed, with the muscles of my back and shoulders and upper arms doing the work (along with the muscles in my legs, of course). Having to grip the pole to keep it in your hand would be a distraction.

    OTOH, if you regularly use trekking poles, exercising your hands might be helpful, though trekking poles are used very differently from Nordic walking poles: trekking poles are placed in front of you and take some of your weight, with the main goal being stability and lightening somewhat the weight carried by the knees; Nordic poles are planted beside you and pushed back to propel you forward, and they don’t bear much of your weight at all. Trekking poles are for stability, Nordic poles are for exercise and increasing stride.

    Exerstrider technique is very like trekking pole technique, which is bad Nordic pole technique.

    I very much like the freedom of movement and the relaxation my hands enjoy from wearing a glove attached to the pole.

    Like

    LeisureGuy

    18 September 2020 at 2:40 pm


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