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Nordic walking four times more effective than gym workouts

Nordic walking, the sport of walking briskly with bespoke ski poles, has been shown to be several times more effective for improving physical endurance than fitness training in a gym and its health benefits have been noted extensively. Even so, the Finnish invention is largely recommended as a fitness option to only females and the elderly at present. To address this issue, a campaign has been launched to pump up the sport’s image.

Mies esittelee oikeaa sauvakävelyasentoa ylämäessä.
A man demonstrates the proper Nordic walking technique for moving uphill. Image: Katja Oittinen / Yle

Nordic walking, a Finnish invention that captured the imagination of the world years ago, is now in a rut. Even as studies continue to roll in touting its health benefits, it seems to have an image problem.

Researcher Mika Venojärvi from the University of Eastern Finland’s Institute of Biomedicine says that the pastime is largely associated with women and seniors, not men and young people. Most people do not consider Nordic walking as a sport, he laments, but a movement is now underway to change this.

“When done properly, in a hilly terrain for example, Nordic walking can definitely be classified as a sport.  And if you use the poles to maximum effect, it becomes much more effective,” he says.

A plethora of health benefits

Nordic walking is ideal for overweight exercisers, as it reduces strain on the knees and causes less musculoskeletal problems than for example jogging. Yet everyone can stand to benefit from this effective endurance sport.

A Finnish study released a few years ago showed that Nordic walking, also known as pole walking, has many health benefits. In the study, middle-aged men that were either slightly or significantly overweight increased their aerobic fitness by 20 percent from baseline. Their body fat, total cholesterol count and bad cholesterol counts also fell.

“The control group that worked out in a gym only showed a five percent aerobic fitness improvement, a clear difference compared to the Nordic walkers,” says Venojärvi.

New campaign to promote the sport

An effort is now underway to improve the dowdy reputation of the sport. The International Nordic Walking Association issued a statement on October 16 setting out the definition of Nordic walking, a glossary of key terms and a brief history.

“The goal is to speak in clear terms about Nordic walking from here on out: what it is, what benefits it brings, and harmonizing various practices into one,” says Venojärvi.

Over half a million people in Finland are estimated to go Nordic walking regularly, and 10 to 14 million do it worldwide, depending on the source. Outside of Finland, Venojärvi says the sport has the most enthusiasts in Sweden and Austria, and it is gaining ground in Russia.  There is still work to do, however, to spread the word.

“We are planning how we can pump the image of Nordic walking and make it sportier. It may not be a competitive sport, but it does suit people of all different ages and sizes,” he continues.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to the proper technique

Nordic walking is a Finnish invention dating back to the 1930s. Cross-country skiers trained during summer months by walking with their ski poles. The first custom-made Nordic walking poles, shorter with rubber tips, were manufactured in 1997.

“As late as the early 90s people were still walking with their ski poles and I think that is part of the reason for the sport’s poor image today. As soon as the custom poles hit the market, the number of walkers skyrocketed from hundreds to hundreds of thousands,” says Venojärvi.

Although Nordic walking looks easy, it doesn’t come naturally without technical training, even to the cross-country crazy Finns. Venojärvi gives some helpful tips: maintain good posture, walk naturally, keep your hands and arms loose and relaxed and push off from the ground slightly once the pole is thrust behind you.

“You often see people Nordic walking with the poles moving in front of their body the whole time. In this case, the poles are only being used for balance. It is best to use the whole range of arm movement to extend the pole behind you as well,” he says.

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