Have you seen people walking around and wondered why they were walking with what looked like funny sticks? Those funny sticks can actually bring extra benefits to your walking routine. The sticks you've seen are most likely specially designed Nordic walking poles, which are similar to ski poles and used in mostly flat areas. (Trekking poles may resemble Nordic walking poles but they are designed more for hiking in hills and on uneven terrain.) Walking poles in both fixed and adjustable lengths can be found online and in most sporting goods stores.
Using Nordic walking poles can be a fun, low-impact, moderate-intensity, whole body activity for people of all ages and fitness levels. And you have the added pleasure of exercising outdoors with very little impact on your joints. While regular walking involves muscles in the lower body, each time you push off with the poles, you will be working upper body muscles, including the arms, shoulders, upper back and chest, as well as your abs, legs and buttocks. You will be taking these muscles through a full range of motion, stretching and lengthening muscles that are often tight. The poles also can improve balance, coordination and stability, helping you to maintain or improve posture.
When performed correctly, "funny stick" walking engages about 90 percent of your muscles. Arm movement associated with walking poles adds intensity to your aerobic workout, which will help you burn more calories. And you will be burning more calories without feeling you are overexerting yourself.
A little history: Nordic walking got its start in Finland in the early 20th century, when competitive cross country skiers developed it as a means to train on dry land during their off-season. Around 1980, people who recognized the whole body benefits of Nordic walking started doing it as a recreational physical activity.
To avoid common mistakes (planting the poles too far ahead of you; using poles that are too long or too short; not coordinating opposite arm and leg movement; exercising poor posture, with your shoulders forward while looking downward), it's a good idea to explore "Learn to Nordic Walk" tutorials online or take an instructional class before you venture out with your sticks. Proper technique is essential for maximum benefits. Follow these tips:
• Wear a good pair of walking shoes.
• Adjust the poles to the correct height. Your elbows should be at your sides, directly under your shoulders, and your lower arms should be parallel to the ground, with your hands slightly lower than your elbows.
• If your poles have handles, slide your hands through the loops and "shake hands'' with the poles.
• Hold the poles close to your body, pointing them diagonally to the back.
• Push one pole at a time as far back as possible, straightening one arm as the other arm is extended as you step forward.
• Keep your shoulders retracted and your back straight as you walk.
• Practice walking with the poles, coordinating your arms and legs. Take long strides and allow your arms to swing in natural opposition to your legs. Your left arm and right leg should move in tandem.
Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but can't respond to individual inquiries. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Your move | Demonstrated by Leon Kennedy and Ruth Ann Ott
Squat with calf raise: Targets the lower body.
Standing tall with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders, hold the poles slightly in front of you and to the sides.
Bend your knees and lower your hips as you would to sit in a chair, keeping your chest upright. (Ruth Ann)
Slowly stand up and, with your back straight, lift your heels into a calf raise. (Leon)
Repeat eight to 10 times.
Reverse lunge with knee lift: Targets the lower body.
Standing tall, hold the poles, keeping your elbows bent by your sides.
Maintaining good posture, lunge to the back with your right leg, lowering your knee toward the ground. (Ruth Ann)
Standing up, bring your right knee forward to hip level. (Leon)
Repeat eight to 10 times with each leg.
Back stretch with poles (not pictured): Stretches chest muscles and strengthens back muscles.
Stand tall with your feet hip distance apart.
With palms facing to the back, hold the poles behind your back.
Raise your arms to about waist level as you press your shoulders to the back and press your chest forward.
Hold the stretch for 15 to 20 seconds, repeating several times. Avoid holding your breath.