The secrets of Nordic walking

By: Jill Malcolm


To the uneducated observer, Nordic walking may look amusing, but devotees know a few secrets that Jill Malcolm was thankful to learn

After years of amusing myself with bouts of ‘walk watching’, I concluded that Nordic walkers, who look like they are doing an alien’s version of pole dancing, won my ‘funny walks’ competition easily.

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Nordic walking is an effective and full-body exercise for fitness and rehabilitation

At that point, I didn’t know that they were using 90 per cent of their muscles and shedding 40 per cent more calories than regular walkers. I decided I’d rather be seen dead. 

And then, as the way things go sometimes, I almost was. Nearly two years ago, I suffered a significant brain injury in a freak accident. There was nothing funny about that at all, but after an emergency craniotomy and several months of rehabilitation, it’s almost as if it never happened.

God must have had a chortle because one of the most helpful aspects of my physical recovery has been Nordic walking. And now that I’m over feeling silly (and understand how beneficial it is), I am never going to stop.

Walking for health

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Around the world, millions of devotees have taken up the sport

You don’t have to have a brain injury to reap the benefits of this modern walking sport, first developed in Finland around the mid-1990s. For decades, ski athletes in Finland had been summer training for their winter cross-country skiing by walking with their ski poles, even though there was no snow.

The exercise involves walking with very light, custom poles that look much like ski poles and are strapped to the wrist. They are not used like walking sticks but are pushed behind to propel the walker forward. The result is that the upper body gets a work out as well as the lower. 

The exercise began to evolve as a sports category of its own when its far-reaching health and fitness benefits were recognised. In 2000, the Nordic Walking Association was founded; by 2004 there were an estimated 3.5 million Nordic walkers in Europe, by 2013 it had become a considerable fitness wave and the number had swelled to 10 million. As the sport has spread around the globe, there will now be many more. In New Zealand, there are only thousands of enthusiasts, but the numbers are growing. 

Benefits for motorhomers

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For RVers, this an excellent alternative to straight walking and biking. There’s no need for expensive, hard-to-store equipment or fancy gadgets. All you need are the specially designed poles and an understanding of how to use them, and that’s it. It’s worth noting here that Nordic walking does not work with hiking sticks. The poles are designed for hard and soft surfaces so you can walk almost anywhere. They make walking harder, but going uphill is easier, and there is more stability going down steep paths. 

And here are the benefits; Nordic walking is a workout for the whole body. It increases the aerobic effect by up to 25 per cent more than regular walking, decreases load and strain on lower limbs, improves posture and lateral mobility of the spine, develops core stability and strength and improves balance. For a practised procrastinator like me, perhaps the biggest drawcards are that it doesn’t feel like hard work, it’s out in the open air, and I enjoy it so much that I actually do it. 

As well as boosting fitness, the exercise benefits those recovering from injury or suffering from chronic issues such as osteoarthritis or Parkinson’s disease. It’s helpful when stability is an issue because the poles add a layer of safety. On uneven or slippery surfaces this is a bonus for anyone; if Nordic walking sounds like a panacea for whole-body fitness that’s because it is.

Meet June

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Fitness instructor June Stevenson is spreading the word

For June Stevenson, an ex-police detective, Nordic walking was never a laughing matter. Following her time in the police force, she has trained and worked in the fitness and wellness industry and first encountered the sport in 2004 at a fitness conference. 

"I tried it, and within 45 minutes I got it," she says. "It made so much sense that I became an instant convert. Right from the start, I could see how it could efficiently enhance ordinary walking and have a lower impact on the body. At first, I saw it as a fitness tool – not a rehabilitation tool – and then I discovered that it’s both."

Now she has trained top athletes as well as people with low fitness levels or physical problems. "Nordic walking is magic. Of all the activities I have tried, this gives me the greatest buzz. I see people attracted to Nordic walking who would never do any other activity, and their adherence remains high. Many broken-down runners and walkers, whose upper body posture is terrible, comment on the benefits they’ve gained by using poles.

Learning the ropes

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"The technique is an extension of normal walking but makes you more purposeful and dynamic and your posture more upright. When people know about it, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t want to take it up."

To that end, June and her converts have walked all over Auckland trying to familiarise people with the concept. She formed the Nordic Walking Fitness Association of New Zealand that ensures that trainers are themselves adequately trained, and owns a company called Nordic Kiwi.

"As in any sport, learning the correct technique is very important," she said. "It’s not that it’s difficult. It can be picked up quickly, but it has to be taught the right way to ensure maximum benefit." 

June is at the top of her game. In New Zealand and around the world, she frequently competes in long-distance races such as marathons and half-marathons, and she attends conferences whenever she can. When I caught up with her, she had recently returned from an International Nordic Walking Federation meeting in Moscow. 

Pole walking doesn’t have the same sex appeal as pole dancing. Maybe that’s the reason I couldn’t find many celebrities who’ve taken the step. None-the-less, if you choose to take it up, you will find plenty of good company. Although I am still as slow as a tortoise, I’ll look forward to joining you when I’m next on the road. 

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