Motorhome travelers will find that adopting a Nordic walking routine using poles created especially for this purpose can add benefits to their workout with very little extra effort.
By Judee Stalmack, F235840
After nine years of traveling the country in our motorhome, I was beginning to feel like a migrant couch potato. Once I discovered Nordic walking, a flexible exercise routine that I can easily fit in while traveling, I turned the corner on losing weight and started feeling more energized.
I was walking for exercise before, but now I am walking smarter, not harder. I am still walking about the same distance and at the same speed as I used to, but by using the Nordic walking technique, I’m getting a total body workout and burning more calories. Oddly enough, I don’t feel like I’m exercising any harder.
All I needed to get started were two lightweight walking poles (which hardly take up any space in our motorhome’s storage compartment), a pair of good walking shoes, and the desire to learn to walk correctly.
Nordic walking is similar to its winter counterpart, cross-country skiing. You walk around with poles in your hand. Eventually you become immune to being told by passersby, “What you need is some snow!” The teasing is easy to take when you think of the health benefits you are reaping.
Nordic walking has been popular in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany for years. It has been catching on at spas across the United States, because it combines the calorie-burning power of an aerobic workout with the body-sculpting benefits of a weight-training session. If you have any sort of medical problem, you should, of course, seek your doctor’s advice before starting any exercise program.
Nordic walking has several advantages over other types of fitness walking. Among them are the following:
1. Improves posture and increases stability
Using the poles correctly can improve one’s posture. The poles also give stability to people who have balance problems. People who have given up walking for pleasure because they have sore joints or bad knees discover that they can walk more comfortably using the poles. Walking poles ease the impact on joints by transferring some of the force from your legs to the poles. On trails, walking poles can provide as much, or more, stability than a hiking stick.
2. Increases aerobic exercise
Using walking poles increases the heart rate without increasing the perceived rate of exertion. In Finland, participants in a study walked at a steady pace on a treadmill, both with and without poles. When the participants used the poles, they burned more calories and increased their heart rates. Yet everyone said that walking with the poles felt easier. “You move more efficiently with poles, so it feels like less work,” says walking expert Robert Sweetgall of Clayton, Missouri, author of Walking Off Weight Workbook (Creative Walking Inc.).
Studies have shown that people who use walking poles can increase the fat-burning benefit of walking by 40 percent while going the same distance at the same speed. Almost everyone can increase the fat-burning effect by at least 10 to 20 percent and pump their oxygen consumption by up to 25 percent.
3. Adds an upper-body workout
Using walking poles takes the muscles in the arms, shoulders, upper chest, and back through a full range of motion for a good upper-body workout. The resistance helps build better bone density and overcome the effects of hunching forward that many people adopt while driving an RV, working at a desk, sitting in front of a computer, reading, or watching TV. In stressful situations, we all have a tendency to tighten our neck and shoulder muscles. Nordic walking loosens up those knots. (Note: The use of arm weights also can add an upper-body workout to a walk, but exercise experts say the weights put an unnatural stress on joints when they are used on longer walks. A race-walking arm motion also can add an upper-body workout to a walk. However, a correct race-walking technique is difficult to achieve without coaching. Nordic walking is an easily learned sport.)
Several brands of walking poles are on the market, with a good set of poles costing $70 to $80. Price, however, should not be the deciding factor. You should compare the pole’s adjustability, weight, hand grips, and shock-absorbing features.
I chose Leki Malaku poles, primarily because their height is adjustable. My Leki poles telescope from 33 to 55 inches, so they can be adjusted to the right height for different users, or be shortened or lengthened for long uphill climbs and descents. Best of all, when the poles are collapsed, they take up practically no room at all in our motorhome. They even can fit in a suitcase.
Two other popular brands, the Exel Nordic Walker and the Swix CT4 Nordic Walking Pole, are made of carbon fiber. This feature makes them very lightweight, lighter than my aluminum Leki poles. However, these poles must be purchased in height-specific lengths.
Shock-absorbing systems vary. My Leki poles have three aluminum shafts lined with cork, along with a built-in, triple-spring anti-shock system. The pole is constructed with steel tips for natural trails and gravel roads, and add-on rubber tips for walking on sidewalks or pavement. I consider the rubber tips for hard surfaces a “must-have” accessory. With them, I can turn a parking lot rest stop into an effective fitness stop. (More about the intensity and duration of a Nordic walking program later.)
Good walking poles have ergonomic hand grips and hand straps. The feel and fit of the strap is important, for just as in cross-country skiing, you may place your fingers around the pole, but you actually rest your hand and put your weight on the softer, flexible strap.
A good set of walking poles has both a right-hand and a left-hand grip. To correctly take hold of a pole, put your hand up (not down) through the strap, so that when you place your fingers around the handle, your wrist pulls down on the strap. One side of the strap should stay tucked between your palm and the handle-grip. (See the photos above.)
About Your Shoes
Good walking shoes are just as important as good walking poles. (Obviously, if you have a heel or foot problem, seek your doctor’s consent and advice before you start.)
Your shoes should be lightweight. The soles should not be stiff. They should be flexible and should bend easily at the ball of the foot. Consider either a pair of running shoes or shoes made specifically for fitness walking.
A shoe with a good arch support is important. It also helps to wear soft, thick socks to cushion your feet. Be aware that the cushioning and arch support in a shoe degrades over time, so consider buying a new pair of shoes if yours are more than one year old. Even with good shoes, you may need to add a good insole to achieve the proper arch support.
On a sustained walk, feet swell. So it’s best to go shopping for these shoes later in the day, and be sure to wear the same kind of socks you’d have on while walking.
Before You Begin
Make sure your poles are adjusted to the right height for you. A general rule of thumb is that your elbow should be at a 90-degree angle when the tip of the pole is on the floor and your hand is on the grip. Use this as a guideline, and then test the poles under the conditions in which you will be using them and adjust again if needed. For instance, if you are walking on pavement, you may need to slightly shorten your poles. On a beach walk, you may need to lengthen them.
Use the rubber tips when walking on pavement, and make sure the rubber shoe-shaped tip is pointing behind you. This may seem backward, but it’s the right way.
Begin by walking at a normal pace for a few minutes. Then do a few warm-up exercises. Try a few slow head swings and arm circles. Walk for 30 seconds on your toes. Walk another 30 seconds on your heels. Stand with your heel hanging over the curb to stretch your Achilles tendon for another count of 30 seconds. After a short warm-up, you’re ready to pick up the pace with Nordic walking.
Nordic Walking “” The Technique
Nordic walking is a simple enhancement of the way you normally walk and swing your arms. I found that the instructions that came with my walking poles were similar to those once offered by my cross-country ski instructor. Following are some hints and tips:
Introducing the technique:
- To get into the swing of Nordic walking, just start walking. Don’t grip the poles tightly. In fact, forget you have the poles on your wrists.
- Relax your shoulders and let your arms hang loose. Walk normally and drag the poles behind you. Do this for at least one minute.
- Now, while you’re walking and dragging your poles, pretend that you’re going to shake hands with someone. That’s how high your pole should rise on the upswing.
Planting your poles:
- As your arm comes forward for the handshake (never higher than your elbow), plant the tip of your pole on the ground. Open your hand slightly to make sure your grip on the handle is loose.
- Let the pole swing on its strap as you start the handshake. Don’t reach forward to plant the pole. Plant it at the end of each natural, forward swing of your arm.
- As your arm swings back from the handshake, straighten your arm and push the pole against the ground behind you. Transfer your arm’s weight and energy into the strap. The hand grip is just there for the ride. This push backward on the strap will propel you forward.
- Plant a pole and push off with each step you take. Plant the pole opposite to the foot that hits the ground (e.g., plant the right pole as the left heel hits the ground).
- The poles should always be diagonal and the tips behind your body.
- Each step has three components: (a) Strike the ground gently with your heel; (b) let your foot roll through the step; and (c) push off with your toes. (This is hard to do if your shoes are stiff.)
- With each step, think “Roll through … push off.”
- Don’t be tempted to take a longer stride with your leading foot. Your forward leg has no power, so you will not gain any speed. You will only look awkward. This mistake is known as overstriding. Overstriding also can make your shins hurt.
- When you take a step, it is the leg in back that is driving you forward, so your stride will naturally lengthen behind your body. The key to powerful, efficient walking is to get as much power as you can from this back leg and its calf muscle as your foot rolls from heel to toe.
- If you want to walk faster, take shorter, not longer steps. Swing your arms faster and your feet will follow.
- You should walk briskly, but not overexert yourself. How fast is fast enough? Give it the “talk test.” You should just barely be able to hold a conversation while you are walking.
- Be sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after walking.
- Walk tall. Use good posture. Don’t lean forward or back. Don’t arch your back.
- Keep your chin up and focus on something 20 or more feet ahead, not the ground at your feet.
- Keep your shoulders back and down, loose and relaxed. Pretend you’re trying to hold a small orange between your shoulder blades, or, as my yoga instructor would say, “Put your shoulders in your back pockets.”
- To get the best walking workout, tighten your abdominal muscles. Imagine that you’re zipping up a tight pair of jeans (but don’t hold your breath).
- Breathe naturally. Even better, take deep, rhythmic breaths to get the maximum amount of oxygen through your system.
- If you’re having trouble keeping your arms and legs coordinated, try humming a marching tune. The beat will help you keep the rhythm.
Adding “exercises” to your walk
After you have mastered the basic technique, it’s fun to put a little imagination into your fitness walk. Do interval training: walk normally for a block, poling with every step. Then walk as fast as you can, almost at a low-impact jog, poling every step (or every other step) for the next block. Try walking a short distance while turning your head to look over your left shoulder (like a soldier marching past the grandstand); then walk the same distance looking over your right shoulder.
Slow your pace a few minutes before it’s time to stop. Let one pole hang from your wrist, and take hold of the other as if it were a stretch band. As you hold the ends of the pole, reach both arms out in front of your chest. Keeping the pole level, raise it over your head. Follow through and bring the pole down behind your neck. Then bring it back up and down in front of your chest again. Keep repeating this routine as you cross your finish line.
And, remember, it’s just as important to stretch after your walk as before. Use your walking poles to lean on and do a few calf stretches and lunges.
About Time And Distance
Some people measure their walks by time; others by distance. Since we’re often stopped or camping in a different location, I find it easier to time my walking, having read that most fitness walkers can cover a mile in about 15 minutes. The intensity of walking will vary according to a person’s age and fitness, but generally, brisk is best.
Walking an hour a day is associated with cutting your risk of heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, and stroke. Walking at a moderate pace for 30 to 60 minutes not only burns calories but also builds muscle to speed up one’s metabolism.
Walking for 15 minutes, four times a day burns as many calories as walking steadily for an hour. There are benefits to taking one longer walk, but you need to weigh that against what you enjoy doing and what fits into your schedule. After a steady 45-minute walk, your body has burned off the sugar (glycogen) it has stored up; only then does it begin to burn fat. However, even if you walk for only 30 minutes or less, your body is still burning calories that it wouldn’t have burned otherwise. Exercise, along with diet, is key to losing or maintaining weight.
Pedometer studies have shown that people who add more steps to their “normal” walking day are less likely to be overweight, and are at a lower risk for heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and type II diabetes. Adding just 2,000 more steps to your day can prevent weight gain, according to Dr. James O. Hill of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. By the same token, adding even more steps can help you to lose weight.
How do you know how many steps you’re taking if you don’t wear a pedometer while you walk? One mile takes approximately 2,100 average steps. One city block is about 200 average steps. A 10-minute walk is about 1,200 steps.
Even 10-minute walks can increase fitness, provided that they are brisk enough. One study at Loughbrough University in England found that women walking continuously for 30 minutes five days a week had almost identical increases in fitness as women who split their 30 minutes into three 10-minute walks. Perhaps even more encouraging was that the women who walked the shorter time periods lost more weight and reported greater decreases in waist circumference than those who walked longer. (Source: M. Murphy and A.E. Hardman 1998, “Training effects of short and long bouts of brisk walking in sedentary women,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.)
Two Safety Tips
Because I often get up before the sun to go walking, I find it convenient to leave two small battery-powered strobe lights clipped to the wrist straps of my poles. They’re ready to switch on when needed, and, of course, I make it a point to wear light-colored clothing. The strobe lights also could be clipped to the back of my baseball cap or jacket. A reflective vest would provide an extra measure of safety.
For identification purposes, I also keep a luggage tag attached to one of the pole straps. It’s unlikely that I’ll lose the poles, but if I should be seriously injured while walking, my name and our cell phone number are on the tag. I make sure the cell phone is turned on (and somewhere my husband will hear it) when I leave the motorhome.
I love my new exercise routine. Now that I’m using walking poles, I’m getting a better workout without working any harder or walking any longer. And stray dogs I encounter along the way don’t scare me at all since I started carrying two big sticks!
Learn More About Nordic Walking
You can use the Internet to learn more about fitness walking. I recommend going first to http://walking.about.com. Type “Nordic walking” or “walking poles” in that site’s search box and you’ll find good, unbiased tips on purchasing walking poles and walking shoes. You also can conduct a search for Web sites mentioning “Nordic walking,” but it will give you some 2,340,000 hits!