If hoofing it with poles seems a little weird, get this: Nordic walking gives you cardio plus a full-body strength workout. Talk about effective!
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Ever since I started Nordic walking on the paved trails where I live in Indiana, I've drawn a lot of attention to myself. People comment on the poles I use, shouting funny things like "Where's the snow?" or "Are you asphalt skiing?" I honestly don't mind. It's a chance for me to rave about the health benefits of the sport. (And little do they know: I've competed in Nordic walking for almost a decade, snagging six world championships and six world records. Two still stand.)

The quirky-looking activity is common in parts of Europe, where it started off as dry-land training for cross-country skiers and then became a favorite mainstream form of exercise. As with cross-country skiing, you use specially designed poles to propel yourself forward. Nordic walking poles are shorter than ski poles, with secure hand straps and angled rubber feet to help you push against the ground—lengthening your stride so you can go faster and engaging the muscles in your core, chest, shoulders and arms. In fact, this full-body workout burns 20 to 46% more calories than regular walking, says Malin Svensson, author of Nordic Walking. And by distributing the workload more evenly throughout your body, you won't feel like you're putting in any more effort—although your heart rate may say otherwise. Even better: A systematic review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that Nordic walking was more effective than brisk walking at lowering resting heart rate and blood pressure, and boosting aerobic capacity. Some studies in the review also found that Nordic walking raised heart rate and oxygen consumption levels as much as jogging did—but in a joint-friendly way. And a study by researchers at Stanford and the University of Florida showed that walking with poles reduced stress at the knee joint by about 30% compared to strolling without them. On top of that, 90% of your muscles are activated when you are Nordic walking.

couple nordic walking
Credit: Arnt Haug/Look-Foto/Offset.com

Nordic walking has a technique all its own, so there's a small learning curve. You can find great Nordic walking tutorials on YouTube, but you essentially start by strapping on the poles (I recommend Leki's Instructor Lite pair, buy it: $130.40, Amazon.com) and dragging them alongside you as you walk normally, while keeping your back straight. Once that feels natural, you can start pushing the poles into the ground and swinging your arms even more, thinking about reaching your arm forward as if you were about to shake somebody's hand, and then allowing your grip to relax as you propel your arm behind your hip.

Take the poles out for a spin once, and who knows? You may follow in my footsteps and fall so hard for this sport that you set a new record, even if it's just in your own neighborhood.

EatingWell, April 2021