The Benefits of Nordic Walking

By David Downer

Since 1989, major research has been conducted to determine the benefits of Nordic Walking. Can Nordic Walking help those with serious health issues, or the elderly? Does it increase fitness levels in individuals who are already active and healthy? Could it improve an athlete's performance?


Psychological Health

In 1992, Stoughton, Larkin, and Karawan, a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, studied three groups of participants: a control group, a group of pole walkers, and a group of regular walkers. After twelve weeks of walking thirty to forty-five minutes four times a week, the group using poles showed a great deal of improvement psychologically. There was a significant decrease in depression, anger, fatigue, and other mood disturbances.

There was some speculation that the participants felt unique and special because they were given the opportunity to do a "new," enjoyable form of walking, which also increased their positive moods. Additionally, researchers speculated that the cross-patterning that occurs (arms and legs working in opposition to each other) might stimulate a greater number of nerves and muscles, creating a more tranquil and rhythmic exercise. However, the conclusion was that using poles possibly could enhance self-acceptance and promote a favourable attitude toward exercise.


Coronary Heart Patients

Walter et al (1996) investigated the effects of Nordic Walking on coronary heart patients. All of the subjects were 61-year-old men who had had either heart bypass surgeries or angioplasty procedures or had suffered heart attacks. The researchers concluded that walking with poles is a safe form of rehabilitation for heart patients. Wilk et al (2005) studied sixteen acute coronary disease patients in Poland. They also concluded that Nordic Walking is an effective activity for cardiac rehabilitation.


Neck and Shoulder Pain

A Finnish study conducted by Anttila et al in 1999 compared Nordic Walking using poles with regular walking. After twelve weeks, the study found that walking with poles decreased neck and shoulder pain, and upper body mobility increased as well.
Similar results were obtained by another team of researchers led by Karvonen in 2000 when they studied neck and shoulder pain with a group who had no previous experience with Nordic Walking.


The Elderly

In 2003, Koskinen et al. studied aging employees, focusing on their postural control as well as the muscular strength of their middle trunk and lower bodies. The participants walked with poles three times a week, and at the end of the study the entire group improved in health-related fitness parameters using the Fitness Test battery developed by UKK Institute (Urho Kaleva Kekkonen Institute) in Finland.

The goal of another study, done by Parkatti et al. in 2002, was to examine the benefits of Nordic Walking on everyday life functions in older, sedentary individuals. A group of 73-year-olds exercised by Nordic Walking twice a week for sixty minutes at a time. The results showed significant improvement in functionality at the end of the twelve-week study and the researchers concluded that Nordic Walking is suitable for the elderly and positively affects an elderly person's function capacity.

A group of MSC Rehabilitation Science students at the University of Brighton, England, are part of an ongoing project to find out if Nordic Walking offered cardiovascular benefits for older people. Led by Dr Raija Kuisma, a Nordic Walker and instructor herself, the student research showed that Nordic Walking raised heart rates by about 13% and burned 25% more calories than normal walking at the same speed. The students are conducting further studies to investigate the effects of Nordic Walking on lower limbs, joints, spinal mobility and muscle tension in the elderly.


Breast Cancer

Lisa Kay Sprod's thesis, published at the University of Northern Colorado in 2003, measured the effects of walking with poles on shoulder function in breast cancer survivors. The data showed that walking with poles for eight weeks significantly improved upper body muscular endurance in breast cancer patients following treatment.



Dr. Pusch, a professor at the University of Graz, Austria, conducted a study (unpublished) to determine the effects of Nordic Walking on women with osteoporosis. Participants increased hip-bone density and there was an even greater improvement in the density of their spines. Dr. Pusch concluded that Nordic Walking is a valuable component of prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.


Parkinson's Disease

A study by Baatile et al. 2000 researched 72-year-old males with Parkinson's disease. The participants walked with poles three times a week (for sixty minutes per session) in a supervised, eight-week training program. The purpose of the study was to determine if Nordic Walking improved cognitive skills, daily activities, motor function, and quality of life in those with Parkinson's disease. The researchers concluded that a regular Nordic Walking program did in fact increase the perceived functional independence and quality of life for individuals with Parkinson's disease.


Vascular Diseases

In 2003, Eileen Collins and her team of researchers studied fifty-two patients with vascular disease, ages 65-70 years old. The participants Nordic Walked three times a week for thirty to forty-five minutes. They were also given 400 IU of Vitamin E daily. The researchers concluded that while Vitamin E seemed to cause little added benefit, Nordic Walking effectively improved both the tolerance for exercise and the perceived quality of life for patients with PAD (peripheral arterial disease).


Weight Loss/Body Fat Loss

Heikkilä et al (in an unpublished study conducted in 2004) studied the effect of Nordic Walking on overweight adults over a four-month period. The participants lost on average eleven pounds, showed a decrease in body fat, and their aerobic fitness levels improved on average 29%. According to the researchers, key factors were that the Nordic Walking training was moderate to high in intensity and progressive in nature.



Cardio-Respiratory Fitness

Kukkonen-Harjula et al 2004 did research to determine the effects of brisk walking with and without poles on cardio-respiratory fitness in healthy middle-aged women (ages 50-60). Both the regular walkers and the Nordic Walkers trained four times each week for forty minutes per session. The increase in peak VO2 (the volume of oxygen consumed while exercising at maximum capacity) was modest in both groups of walkers, indicating that no more effort was required to walk with poles than without them.

In 2004, Mänttäri and several other researchers conducted a pilot study for the Kukkonen-Harjula intervention study (see above). This pilot compared cardio-respiratory and musculoskeletal responses in both middle-aged women Nordic Walkers and regular walkers. The subjects, who walked on treadmills, were all familiar with Nordic Walking or cross-country skiing. Nordic Walking increased the participant's mean heart rate (2.6% to 4.9%) compared to regular walking. The researchers attributed the increase to increased muscle activity in the upper body.

In an unpublished study using poles led by Dr. Fran Nagle at the University of Wisconsin in 1989, increases in O2 consumption in a pole walking group averaged 37% and reached as high as 94% (versus walking without poles).

Note: There is usually a direct correlation to increases in O2 consumption and increases in energy expenditure.


Physiological Effects

Hendrickson (1993) and Porcari et al (1997) both studied the physiological effects of Nordic Walking on already fit men and women. The participants were divided into two groups walking on treadmills: regular walkers and Nordic Walkers.
Hendrickson's study showed that using poles significantly increased oxygen uptake, heart rate and energy expenditure – approximately 20% compared to those walking without poles.

Porcari's study showed similar results: an average of 23% higher oxygen uptake, 22% higher caloric expenditure, and 16% increase in heart rate compared to the non-pole walkers. There was also a 38% increase in endurance in the Nordic Walkers. Porcari concluded that Nordic Walking can result in increased muscular endurance.

In 2001, Swedish researchers Gullstrand & Svedenhag studied acute physiological effects while walking on a treadmill, with or without poles. The results shown by the fifty-five year old participants showed that VO2, VE, blood lactate, and Heart Rate all increased in the pole walkers, but the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) was no different in Nordic Walkers compared to regular walkers.


Heart Rate/Blood Lactate Levels

In a study conducted by Aigner et al in 2004, participants walked with and without poles on alternate days. The results of this study showed that heart rates and blood lactate levels were significantly higher during Nordic Walking compared to regular walking—the benefits being increased energy expenditure and a more strenuous cardiovascular session.

Laukkanen also studied heart rate during normal and fast walking speeds, both with and without poles. In a 1998 unpublished study, the results showed an increase in heart rate using the poles. This shows that Nordic Walking produces a greater cardiovascular strain, which is good news for people who cannot run, but have trouble reaching their training heart rate by regular walking.


Metabolic Cost

In a study conducted by the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas (Morss et al 2001; Church et al 2002), the metabolic cost (the higher the metabolic rate, the more calories consumed) of Nordic Walking was compared to normal walking. This important study showed significant increases in oxygen consumption (up to 20% on average), caloric expenditure, and heart rate in the Nordic Walkers when compared to the regular walkers. There was no difference in perceived exertion between the groups.

The same group of researchers (Jordan et al 2001) compared separately the metabolic cost of high intensity poling. The results showed that during high intensity Nordic Walking, heart rates increased an average of 35 bpm when compared to walking without poles, which means more energy was expended and thus more benefits reaped.


Gait analysis (lower extremities)

Willson et al 2001 conducted a study to determine whether walking with poles reduces lower extremity loading. A three-dimensional gait analysis showed that there were indeed variables in range of motion between walking with and without poles. The subjects walking with poles were able to walk at a faster speed, while reducing vertical ground reaction forces, vertical knee joint reaction forces, and knee extensor angular impulses.


Endurance Capacity

A German study led by Ripatti in 2002 showed that even while walking at lower speeds with poles, the participants increased their endurance.


Incorporating Arm Activity in Walking

Knox (1993), Foley (1994), Butts et al (1995) all conducted research using CrossWalk Dual Motion Cross Trainer motorized treadmills to determine the energy expended when incorporating arm activity during walking. Their results all showed that walking with arm activity significantly increased heart rate, ventilation, oxygen uptake as well as the amount of energy expended. For instance, in Butts study, energy expenditure increased by 55% with the arm activity, while the rate of perceived exertion was about the same compared to regular walking. While arm activity on a treadmill is not the same as walking outside with poles, this study can definitely correlates as a reference for Nordic Walking.


Energy Expenditure

In 1995, researchers at the University of Michigan in East Lansing (Rodgers et al) studied how much energy was expended in participants walking with poles on motorized treadmills. This research showed that aerobic power and heart rate were significantly greater when walking with poles compared to walking without poles. And even though the perceived rate of exertion didn't differ between the groups, the Nordic Walkers burned significantly more calories.


Cross Country Skiers

In 2003, a Norwegian study by Haugan and Sollesnes focused on twenty-two-year-old sports students. Half of the participants were cross-country skiers. While Nordic Walking, the oxygen uptake (signifying increased exertion and conditioning) did not increase in the group of already seasoned cross-country skiers, but it was significantly higher in the other subjects who were not familiar with pole walking.



Risk of Injury

A team of researchers led by Parkkari in 2004 studied the risk of injury in a variety of competitive and recreational sports. He studied risks ranging from 0.19 to 1.5 per 1000 of participation. The highest risk was shown to be in squash at 18.3, judo at 16.3, and orienteering as 13.6. But in Nordic Walking, the risk of injury was only 1.7.


Correct Technique

In May 2006 at the German Nordic Fitness Association Conference, it was reported that a study conducted by Dr. Thorwesten of the University of Munster, Germany, showed that muscle exertion in the arms (11-14%), core, and legs increased when walking with poles, as opposed to regular walking, and the participant's endurance increased significantly. However, the benefits were seen only in those who used the correct Nordic Walking technique.

Also reported at the same conference, a study conducted by Dr. Schwameder of the University of Salzburg, Austria, found that Nordic Walking increased metabolic rates by 12-25% compared to walking without poles, but again, only if the correct technique was used. Muscle activity was also significantly higher, and there was an increase of 23-33% in oxygen usage. Nordic Walking at 7.7 km per hour provided benefits similar to jogging at 9.8 km per hour – with 30% less stress on the knees. This study also noted that the shorter the pole, the greater the muscle exertion and the more stress on the knees.


Consumer Popularity

Shove and Pantzar conducted some research in 2004 from the consumer's perspective. They found that Nordic Walking's popularity has increased due to the active and ongoing exposure and availability to Nordic Walkers, equipment and education and training.



There have been a number of recent studies that prove that outdoor or 'green' exercise has a pronounced effect on the mood and health of an individual.

The three major benefits are:
1. Being outdoors generally leads to increasing activity levels
2. The connection with nature is proven to have a positive effect on mood and to reduce stress levels.
3. Taking part in outdoor activiites increases the opportunity for social interaction - those with increased levels of of social interaction tend to be in better health than those who have very little.

see Natural England - green Exercise for more info.



Recent research by Northumberland University recorded a dramatic difference in the performance of walkers who used trekking poles. The added benefit of Nordic Walking poles is that they can be used for trekking and also provide FURTHER propulsion and upper body work. A simple trekking pole cannot be used to gain a complete Nordic Walking technique.



Based on solid research, Nordic Walking has been shown to provide many health and fitness benefits. This unique and increasingly popular form of exercise has many advantages, both for healthy and fit individuals who want to increase their workouts and gain additional cardiovascular benefits as well as for those with medical conditions that restrict them from jogging or running. And those who have arthritis or other conditions that prevent them from walking without support can now get the advantages of a real workout.
New research studies are being conducted all the time as more and more health and fitness professionals realize the potential of Nordic Walking. Explore it for yourself – do your own research and experience personally the benefits of Nordic Walking!


David Downer is the author of Nordic Walking Step by Step. To view the first 4 chapters visit:



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