The brilliant health benefits of Nordic walking
Nordic walking is the fastest growing fitness activity in the world* and has certainly seen exponential growth in popularity in the UK over the last decade. Could it be the perfect exercise for you?
What is Nordic walking?
Nordic walking was invented in the 1930s as a way for cross-country skiers in Finland to train out of season. During a session, you use specially designed walking poles to take the weight off your knees and lower body joints to help you feel lighter on your feet, build up speed and enjoy a full-body workout. It has become a popular way for people of all ages and fitness levels to transform a walk into an even more effective exercise.
Why is it better for us than just going for a walk?
“With normal walking we only really engage the lower half of the body,” says Laura Kinnunen, a qualified Nordic walking instructor based in south-east London. “We use our feet or legs but we don’t get any action or engagement of the core [stomach muscles], the back, the shoulders and the arms.” By adding the special Nordic walking poles, Laura says, “we start to utilise the muscles in the upper body as well.”
How easy is it to do?
Laura says that you have to learn a special technique to enjoy the full benefit of using the Nordic walking poles, and this can take a few sessions. The poles have a strap that acts as a harness around the hand and wrist, explains Laura: “You plant the poles in such a way that they point behind you and you put a little bit of your bodyweight into them, then push yourself forward, and that action allows you to gain speed in your walking. So you’re walking a bit brisker and you’re engaging the muscles of the arms and the whole of the upper body – it becomes a fantastic whole-body workout.”
What happens during a class?
First off, you’ll be given poles, which are adjusted to your height. Laura says in her hour-long class, she runs through a 10-minute warm up before leading the walkers off. “The fast [or more experienced] walkers can go as fast as they want but I go at the pace of the slowest walker,” says Laura. “So everybody gets to go at the pace they need. Nobody gets left behind and nobody has to keep up with anybody else. There is no competition in Nordic walking.” Laura sometimes pauses the class to run through techniques or mix up the exercise (for example to change from single or double pole walking) but mostly it’s non-stop walking for 40 minutes before the all-important stretches and cool down.
What are the health benefits?
As with any exercise, Nordic walking can be good for your heart’s health and has all the benefits of moderate activity, such as reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Laura teaches a range of students, including previously inactive adults who quickly feel the benefits. One recent example is a woman in her fifties who got breathless just walking to the shops. She attended a four-week beginners’ course with Laura and has quickly become hooked, enjoying her newfound fitness. Says Laura: “She said ‘This is the best thing I have ever done in my life’ because it has improved her fitness so much. It’s not just that she doesn’t get so breathless anymore, she says that she has a lot more energy, too. She used to feel sluggish and tired a lot of the time, but now that she’s walking more, she seems to have more energy.”
Who does it suit?
“The beauty of Nordic walking is that it doesn’t matter what your base fitness level is like: whether you’re a complete novice, whether you’ve never done any exercise before in your life, or whether you’re actually quite active. When you learn the correct technique with an instructor you will reap the fitness and health benefits from it,” says Laura. She says her classes include people of all ages, from teenagers to people in their mid-eighties.
What do I do if I want to give it a go?
Search Nordic Walking UK’s website for sessions near you. It’s best to learn the technique with a qualified teacher to get the most from the exercise and prevent injury.
*According to Nordic Walking UK
To contact Laura, visit brockleynordicwalking.com