Illustration of group people Nordic walking

Your guide to Nordic walking

This easy-on-your-body workout strengthens muscles and improves balance
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Several years ago, retired teacher Kaarina Gentle (District 16 City of Toronto) took a few Nordic walking workshops with trainer Barb Gormley- and got hooked on the activity as a great way to keep fit.

She goes out with her poles for an hour almost every day, sometimes on her own and sometimes with a friend who enjoys the activity, too.

“The ravine system in Toronto is incredible and allows you to go long distances using your poles. When we’ve done our five miles, we often find the nearest subway and take public transit home.”

Gentle started Nordic walking because she was concerned about her bone density and wanted to do more weight-bearing activity. But she also likes the fact the activity works her upper body, and she has received compliments about her posture.

Nordic walking started in Finland in the 1960s as dryland training for cross-country skiers and biathletes, explains Gormley, a certified master trainer and director of education for Urban Poling, a Nordic walking company based in Vancouver. The activity reached North America in the 1990s, and over the last 15 years, it has grown dramatically.

And for good reason.

“It’s great exercise,” says Gormley. “You’re outside in nature and you can do it with others.”

Nordic walking uses almost all the muscles in the body: The lower body gets the benefits of traditional walking, using the poles works the upper body, and core muscles are engaged when you swing your arms forward. The activity is low impact, so easy on the knees, hips and other joints, and it helps improve posture by strengthening the upper-back muscles. And like other cardiovascular exercise, it helps manage blood sugar, weight and stress.

The Nordic walking poles make all the difference — and they’re not to be confused with hiking poles, says Gormley. Hiking poles are held vertically in front of the body and used for balance and stability as you plod across stones, boulders and uneven surfaces.

Nordic walking poles are held at the sides of your body and they swing and plant down behind you to push you forward.

“With hiking, you’re lifting poles with bent elbows, but with Nordic walking you’re swinging poles with straight arms.”

Gormley instructs first-timers to hold the handles of the poles lightly and simply walk with opposite legs and arms in tandem (so swinging the left arm and striding forward with the right foot) while letting poles trail behind at a 45-degree angle.

Illustration of group people Nordic walking
Illustrations by Jori Bolton

“Once that striding motion feels right, make steps a little longer and swing your arms like long pendulums and up a little higher to handshake-height,” she explains. “Press the outside edges of your hands onto the ledge of the pole handles each time a boot tip lands and begin to plant the poles … to push yourself into your next step. The poles maximize energy expenditure by actively engaging the upper body with a full arm swing and that ‘plant, push, propel’ action.”

If you’d like to start Nordic walking, here 15 a beginner’s checklist:

  • Buy Nordic walking poles. Gormley recommends high-quality strapless poles (straps are associated with thumb injuries in falls). The telescoping feature lets you adjust the poles’ length. Prices range up to about $120. The poles should come with boot tips, hard rubber “boots” that go over the metal tips at the end of your poles, to absorb shock as you walk.
  • Sort out clothing. Wear clothing that lets your body move comfortably. The material right next to your skin should wick away moisture as you sweat.
  • Lace up supportive shoes. Wear whatever you’d wear for a brisk walk, says Gormley. Many people like to wear a light trail shoe with a rugged sole.
  • Add other protection. Wear sunscreen and a hat. A small backpack can hold water and a snack.
  • Set up poles for the route: Keep boot tips on if you are walking on paved surfaces; remove if you are walking across fields.
  • Learn the technique. Gormley provides a demon­stration on YouTube and recommends a few private lessons with a master trainer. “It can take a few tries before you feel comfortable Nordic walking, but you’II get it,” she says.
  • Make a commitment. Sign up for a class series or make a twice-a-week date with a friend who Nordic walks, too. An Urban Poling class runs 60 to 75 minutes and includes a warm-up and cooldown and at-stop interval, balance and other exercises.

Anatomy of the Nordic walking pole

Illustration of proper form for nordic walking

Handle: Traditional Nordic walking poles have wrist straps, while contemporary poles are strapless. Ergonomic handles absorb vibration.

Ledge: A ledge is part of the handle of each pole. When in motion, pressing onto the ledge engages core muscles, the backs of arms and sides of the trunk to help propel the body forward.

Tip: A removable boot tip provides a springy landing when walking on hard surfaces like pavement. If you will be walking on a soft surface like grass or trails, remove the boot tip to expose the carbide tip on the end of your pole.

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