How Walking Poles Changed My Mind About Fitness Walking

by Carla Birnberg

It’s with a little embarrassment that I admit I’m an avowed NON walker-for-exercise. I walk when there’s a destination involved and rarely for the sheer sport of it. But it’s so easy — all you need is a pair of shoes and a place to amble — and walking for as little as 30 minutes a day reduces the risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and colon cancer. And walking for 15 minutes, if researchers in the U.K. are indeed correct, lessens chocolate cravings.

So it’s with more than a little embarrassment that I confess that I thought (note the past tense) fitness walking wasn’t enough bang for my workout buck. It seemed as though I’d have to walk for far longer than I cared to exercise in order to reap any benefits. Sure, intellectually I knew otherwise, but I never claimed to be an intellectual exerciser. And don’t get me started on the boredom. Somewhere along the way, I decided that walking as a workout would be entirely dull.

As a result, I was pretty curious when a neighbor suddenly started carrying a pair of poles on her daily walks. I’d been a fitness writer long enough to know they were Nordic walking poles, yet that was pretty much where my knowledge ended. And where my curiosity continued.

You can burn 20 to 40% more calories with walking poles

It turns out walking poles are quite popular in Europe and are now beginning to make their way to the U.S. and Canada. They originated in Finland and are favored by cross-country skiers as a summer training method. The poles focus on working the upper body while walking, and this addition of the torso muscles lets you walk at a slower pace yet receive a more challenging overall workout. You can, in fact, burn anywhere from an additional 20 to 40 percent more calories per session.

A 20- to 40-percent increase? There’s that bang-for-the-exercise-buck I’d been searching for. But I still wanted to see if the addition of walking poles could really spark excitement about walking sans destination.

My walk felt more challenging heart-rate wise — and more interesting

My first walking pole excursion felt awkward and silly. I couldn’t shake the feeling I belonged more on the Alps than in my neighborhood. Then I hit my stride. It took me about 10 minutes, but I got into a groove, and it clicked how I could utilize the sticks to exercise my upper body and take some of the “work” away from my legs. And, once I mastered the pole movement, I found it prompted me to walk more erect with my shoulders relaxed, which is something I need to focus on given all my time in front of the computer.

I was pole-swinging, my upper body muscles were working, and I was happily walking without a destination. My walk felt more challenging heart-rate wise, more interesting given the need to focus on the poles, and almost meditative once I found my rhythm. I was smitten.

Who would I recommend join me in my new walking pole adventure? Everyone. The great thing about the walking sticks is you can adjust them to your needs, they allow walkers of different paces to exercise together, and they are perfect for travel workouts. Sure, they take a few tries to get used to. But once you do, you’ll be glad you made the effort. I can admit I entirely am.