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What is Nordic walking?

Couple doing Nordic walking
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You may have heard of Nordic walking, but what exactly does it entail? The term refers to a low-impact, but intensive, walking style that uses poles to propel yourself forward.

Gill Stewart, author of The Complete Guide to Nordic Walking and the programme director at Nordic Walking UK says: “Nordic walking is a way of involving the whole body with every step you take, because you use two specifically designed poles and a specific walking technique.”

We already know how beneficial walking can be as a form of fitness. But how does Nordic walking differ? What are the health benefits? And how long should you do it for? To discover everything you need to know about the exercise, we’ve done the research, put questions to an expert and compiled all the information. 

What is Nordic walking?

Woman Nordic walking in the mountains

(Image credit: Getty Images)

According to Stewart, Nordic walking dates back to the mid-20th century when it started out as a summer training regime for cross-country skiers. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it was established as an exercise programme, in Finland. Since then, Stewart says, Nordic walking has been adapted to be a more inclusive form of body conditioning.

“You’re getting the same workout as if you were swimming,” says Stewart. “In that it works all major muscles. It’s also far more ergonomic than running, taking the weight off your joints but also engaging the upper body.”

How can you master the art of Nordic walking? “It’s all about swinging arm from shoulder and planting your poles at an angle to get forward propulsion," says Stewart.

According to the Journal of Physical Therapy Science (opens in new tab), it is believed that the primary purpose of using a pole is to be able to utilize the upper limb muscles, which are not normally used in walking, to “facilitate high-intensity exercise with the minimum effort by adjusting the energy consumption of the body”. It’s for this reason that Nordic walking is sometimes described as having the intensity of running without the high impact. 

What are the health benefits of Nordic walking?

Man Nordic Walking in Utah

(Image credit: Getty)

There are many health benefits that can be had from Nordic walking. Here are a few:

1. It boosts your exercise capacity

A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine (opens in new tab) investigated the effects of a Nordic walking program versus a walking program for obese middle-aged women over the course of 12 weeks. It had interesting results.

After the 12-week program, researchers found: “Nordic walking activity in obese women allows an increase in exercise intensity and adherence to a training program without increasing the perception of effort leading to enhanced aerobic capacity.”

But why is this? According to Stewart: “Nordic walking enables you to keep the weight off the lower body joints and – because the poles are supporting you and providing propulsion – it makes it feel easier. But you are working harder because you are bringing in your other body muscles.”

2. It increases oxygen uptake

Nordic walking might be a low impact form of exercise, but that’s not to say it doesn’t provide a lot of bang for its buck.  

In an article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (opens in new tab), researchers found that in comparison to brisk walking without poles, Nordic walking increased VO2 max measures (the amount of oxygen you breathe in while exercising as hard as you can) by around 11%-23%. The more oxygen you inhale, the more energy your body can use. Having a higher VO2 max usually means better physical fitness.

3. It increases muscle strength

According to a study in Asian Nursing Research (opens in new tab), Nordic walking “helps people use not only the lower body, but also all the muscles of the upper body”. The result? “This decreases the load that occurs while walking and could help to increase muscle strength,” researchers conclude.

Stewart agrees. “In its raw format, Nordic walking is a difficult thing to master but also to maintain, because you are using 90% of major muscles. It works out all of the large muscles like the legs, buttock, it engages the core and uses the shoulders and arms as well,” she says.

4. It improves balance and posture

Senior couple Nordic walking in the park

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2021, a report in Healthcare (opens in new tab) looked into the influence of Nordic walking on spinal posture and concluded that: “A Nordic walking training program has a potential to improve upper and lower body strength and balance.”

5. It can burn more calories than walking

Much like walking on a treadmill can help you lose weight, Nordic walking can help you shed pounds, too. A review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (opens in new tab) found that the short-term benefits of Nordic walking in comparison with brisk walking without poles included an increased caloric expenditure of between 18%-22%.

6. It’s mood boosting

Much has been said about the mood-boosting impacts the outdoors can bring. And as stated in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (opens in new tab): “Proximity to green space has been associated with lower levels of stress and reduced symptomology for depression and anxiety.” So as long as you're Nordic Walking somewhere scenic, you could improve your mood.

Stewart adds: “You have got the mood-boosting benefits of being outdoors and in nature – and it’s a rhythmical movement that can feel really mindful when you’re doing it.”

What equipment do you need for Nordic walking?

Couple doing Nordic walking

(Image credit: Getty Images)

One of the best things about Nordic walking is that you don’t need much equipment. Along with a good pair of walking shoes, Stewart says: “You need two poles that have a Nordic walking strap on, which is like a glove you push into, or some of the latest models poles have ergonomic handles that you can gain propulsion from. It can be done any time and any place, urban or rural.”

How long should you do Nordic walking for?

“As long as you can,” says Stewart. “We would say for maintaining a good overall physical condition, if you can do 20 minutes a day that’s better than any other form of fitness I’ve come across.”

Becks is a freelance journalist and writer writing for a range of titles including Stylist, The Independent and LiveScience covering lifestyle topics such as health and fitness, homes and food. She also ghostwrites for a number of Physiotherapists and Osteopaths. When she’s not reading or writing, you’ll find her in the gym, learning new techniques and perfecting her form.