If someone told you that there was an activity that could improve your health, aspects of your brain such as creativity or memory, and even make you happier, would you believe it?
Trust me, that activity exists and it is called Nordic Walking, I will tell you my experience (Spanish article link)
What is Nordic Walking?
According to the International Nordic Walking Federation (INWA), Nordic Walking (NW) is a form of physical activity, where natural walking is enhanced by the addition of the active use of a pair of specially-designed Nordic Walking poles. In other words, it is an improved form of walking, relying on the use of poles.
This sport was originated in Finland. First evidence of walking with the poles for exercise was in 1966, when Leena Jääskeläinen, a physical education teacher in the School of Viherlaakso, Helsinki, introduced “walking with ski poles” into the students’ lessons. Nordic Walking was formally defined with the publication of “Hiihdon lajiosa” (translation: “A part of cross-country skiing training methodic”) by Mauri Repo in 1979. Nordic walking’s concept was developed in Finland based on off-season ski-training activity while using one-piece ski poles.
Benefits for your health
if your doctor recommends you walk regularly because of its beneficial effects, you can do something even better, to practice Nordic Walking that is an improved form of walking. Walking is the basic exercise that all health professionals recommend maintaining a healthy and active life; Nordic Walking provides additional benefits to conventional walking. Let us summarize the main benefits of this exercise:
- It is an aerobic exercise, so it helps to work the cardiovascular system and respiratory capacity and to prevent or control different diseases such as type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure. The regular practice of this exercise has made me fit and increased my energy level.
- It works both the upper and the lower parts of your body, so it is quite a complete sport. It is a more complete exercise than walking because you use up to 90% of your body’s muscles. With normal walking we only really engage the lower half of the body, we use our feet or legs but we don’t get any action or engagement of the core [stomach muscles], the back, the shoulders and the arms. By adding the special Nordic walking poles, we use the muscles in the upper body as well.
- It is ideal for people who want to lose weight and improve other health parameters. It is ideal for losing weight because it burns up to 46% more calories than walking exercise. Pole walking is also associated with improvements in several health parameters like reductions in “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, waist circumference and increases in “good” HDL cholesterol, endurance, muscle strength, and flexibility. This exercise has helped me to lose the 5 kilos I had left over.
- It is ideal for all ages. It is a good exercise for older adults as it decreases lower body load and strain and provides two additional points of support by using the two walking poles. Unlike running or jogging, Nordic walking is not aggressive to the ankles, knees, or back since it does not jump when walking. In fact, the use of walking poles in this exercise provides about 25% of the momentum in body movement, thus reducing the impact on the lower body joints.
- It promotes a good postural hygiene. If the exercise is done well, it stretches the whole back. This is especially interesting as a corrective measure for all the bad postural habits that we have at work or at home, and therefore it can help prevent back pain, especially in the lumbar area, which is a frequent ailment in the population and one of the most frequent causes of sick leave. I can confirm that since I have been practicing Nordic Walking, I no longer have any discomfort in my lower back.
- It can improve your way of walk. After doing periodically this exercise I have found that I walk better than before. Now I stretch my back more and I walk straighter, with a firmer step. Do not assume that we all know how to walk well, there are people who suffer from physical problems that would be reduced if their way of walk were improved.
If you want to know how to use this sport, combined with a healthy diet, for the care of your health, I leave you a link to download for free a book I wrote about the issue (available only in Spanish) “Mens sana in corpore sano. Una guía para el cuidado de tu salud”.
If you want to have an estimate of your risk of suffering a cardiovascular episode you can go to the cardiovascular risk tables of the Spanish Society of Cardiology, or to the following link of the American Heart Association (AHA). So in a couple of minutes you can get an idea of your risk of suffering an acute myocardial infarction or stroke in the next 10 years. If your estimated risk falls into the category of high or very high, you’re sure to take an interest in starting to take care of your health right now to reduce those risk factors, Nordic Walking can help you. From my experience I believe that, along with swimming, it is one of the most complete sports that exist.
The practice of Nordic Walking has made me get in shape, lose weight, improved different health parameters, eliminate back pain from bad posture, improve my way of walk and provide me energy to face life’s challenges. What more could you ask for?
Benefits for your mind and spirit
In addition to improving your overall health, Nordic Walking provides the following benefits for the mind and spirit:
- It improves the well-being of your brain. Nordic Walking helps reduce stress and anxiety and it is even more effective when done in a green environment since nature is intrinsically good for the spirit. Outdoors exercise (beach, mountain) releases endorphins increasing the feeling of well-being. It provides better oxygenation of the brain, thus increasing brain capacity and all related activities. After doing this exercise regularly I feel more relaxed and focused.
- It has benefits for the mind whether it is done alone or in a group. If it is done alone, we can relax the mind, focusing on the breath and become aware of the present moment, our emotions, the environment, and our body. When done in a group it encourages conversation, we disconnect and laugh.
- It helps to make decisions and organize thoughts. Most of us have heard by now that exercise, including walking, generally improves thinking skills, both immediately and in the longer term. Multiple studies have shown that animals and people usually perform better after exercise on tests of memory and executive function, which is essentially the ability to make decisions and organize thoughts.
- It improves the coordination of the two brain hemispheres increasing our learning ability and creativity. In the “Learning how to learn” Coursera course I learnt that we have two different modes of thinking: Focused and Diffuse. We are familiar with the Focused mode; it is when we intentionally focus on something specific that we are trying to learn or create. But we are not so familiar with diffuse mode; it turns out that this more relaxed style of thinking is related to a set of neural rest states. In this diffuse mode of thinking, you can see things from a much broader point of view. You can make new neural connections that go in new directions. Both modes of thinking are complementary, when you are learning something new or generating new ideas your mind needs to be able to go from one mode to the other to optimize this process. The practice of Nordic Walking activates the diffuse mode of thinking; therefore, it is good to practice this exercise after a Focused session of learning or generating ideas. For example, while writing a book called “Nico, the little detective”, I used to rest my mind by doing Nordic Walking. Those walks boosted my creativity, because as I walked, I came up with new ideas that I incorporated into my book.
- It improves the memory, protects the brain, and delays its aging. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.
The practice of Nordic Walking has helped me relax, increased my ability to concentrate and boosted my creativity. What more could you ask for?
Do you want more benefits? Come and see
in addition to improving your health and mental processes, I can think of some additional benefits of Nordic Walking:
- It is a fun exercise (at least for me). There are many things in life that we have to do because we are told to or ought to; exercise should not be one of them. Exercise outdoors, the sense of well-being it provides, the places it takes you, the people you meet, its non-competitive nature, and the ability to be good at it are all part of what makes Nordic walking so unique.
- It makes you socialize with other people. A common way to start with Nordic Walking is to join a group class where you will meet diverse people in a healthy environment; so Nordic Walking will be a social activity for you — another stress buster, mood enhancer, and friendship creator. This activity will make you socialize with other people during the classes and maybe out of them by sharing excursions or trips. If you are looking for your soul mate you may find him/her there, who knows? It is known that relationships with others are fundamental to living a long and happy life.
- After creating a good habit such as Nordic Walking, it will be easier for you to create other good habits. For example, it will be easier for you to modify your diet to eat more healthy foods (vegetables, legumes, fruit, whole grains, fish, unsaturated fats — such as extra virgin olive oil) and reduce the consumption of unhealthy foods (pastries, ready meals, sausages, snacks, etc.).
- After learning something new like Nordic Walking, it will be easier for you to learn other new things. It will open your mind to believe that you can learn more new things, no matter what your age is, since new brain connections can be created at any age. For example, I have learned to draw a little bit lately to make illustrations for my book and I have learned to program in Scratch to introduce my son in computer programming by creating Scratch video games.
- It will encourage you to discover new places. Nordic Walking will be a gateway for you to explore new places either near or far. For example, it has allowed me to get to know the various senderism routes around Paracuellos de Jarama which is the town where I live. Sometimes you don’t have to go far from where you live to find what you’re looking for.
The practice of Nordic Walking has made me have fun, meet new people, discover new places, reinforce other health care habits such as healthy eating and open my mind to continue learning new things. What more could you ask for?
Do you want to start practicing Nordic Walking?
I hope that my incredibly positive experience with Nordic Walking has convinced you to try this fun and healthy exercise. Want to know where to start? Let us see if I can help you take your first steps.
To practice Nordic Walking it is necessary to have specific poles and it is advisable to use comfortable and light footwear, similar to the running model, that allows free movement of the foot, with cushioning capacity in the heel area, and at the junction between the phalanges and metatarsal. A good Nordic Walking pole is based on the following characteristics:
- Upper part: ergonomic grip and a glove that maintains the pole attached to the hand.
- Central part: a strong, light, and rigid or slightly flexible rod.
- Lower part: a rigid toe cap for walking on dirt roads and a rubber stud for walking on asphalt, specially designed for Nordic Walking.
You can ask the staff of your usual sports store for advice on the footwear and poles that best suit your size and characteristics.
How to learn Nordic Walking technique?
I advise you to look for a Nordic Walking course in your area that you can sign up for; It is always better to be taught by professionals. Sharing the learning experience with a group will also be a more fun and motivating experience. The INWA page “Find an instructor” may help (In Spain use the FENWA page “Instructores”). If you live around Madrid I recommend that you contact the instructor who taught me this sport: Juan Toribio. You can sign up with your partner or friends to share this experience with them.
If you want to start right now learning a little about Nordic Walking, you can use the free videos that you have available on the internet; for instance you can watch the following basic videos:
To practice Nordic Walking, you just need sports shoes and specific poles.
To learn Nordic Walking technique I advise you to look for a Nordic Walking course in your area that you can sign up for. But if you want to start learning a little right now, you can use the free videos that you have available the internet
ALFA 247 methodology
I will tell you that the technique they taught me was the ALFA 247 methodology. Learning this technique, like learning to drive or ride a bicycle, requires the automation of a series of movements, which I try to summarize below:
1. You must walk upright, with relaxed shoulders and a straight back.
2. The right leg and left arm should be brought forward at the same time (and the left leg and right arm in the next step) with a gentle hip rotation.
3. The arm that comes forward should have the hand at the level of the hip (as if we were to shake hands with a child) and direct its pole at an angle towards the foot on the same side.
4. When the pole is nailed, it must be released (the glove continues to be attached to the hand so the pole doesn’t fall) so that the impulse that the pole gives to the march has the maximum possible amplitude (if we do not release it, the path of that boost would be shorter)
5. When the stroke of that pole ends, it must be picked up again to be nailed again in the next step. The stride must be appropriate to our height.
6. The foot that advances will always enter heel
7. During the step you must perform a gentle shoulder roll.
I have told you about the different benefits that Nordic walking has for your health and for your mind. This sport has improved my life and I hope it can improve yours.
I encourage you to practice it, go and buy your poles right now. To learn the technique, you can enroll in a course in your area; You can also watch free videos on the Internet that explain the basic techniques of this sport.
In addition to the goal of learning this sport and practicing it regularly, I recommend that you set other goals related to improving your health, such as losing weight, reducing blood pressure or reducing blood sugar. You can consider that the first step to achieve your goals is that you identify them and write a list with them. A person who is not able to write down her goals will not be able to achieve them either.
And don’t forget to leave your Nordic Walking poles at the door of your house, if you have them in sight it will cost you less to take them and go for a walk with them. they will be your friends from now on.
International Nordic Walking Federation web page (INWA)
Federación Española de Nordic Walking (FENWA)
La marcha Nórdica — Nordic Walking — Caminata nórdica. Planeta Nordic Walking
Juan Toribio. Guía de Montaña — Entrenador de Marcha Nórdica
Articles and talks
Jen Uscher, Jennifer Carr (August 28, 2013) Physical Exercise Beefs Up the Brain
Gretchen Reynolds (April 30, 2014). “Want to be More Creative? Take a Walk.” The New York Times.
Inwa-nordic-walking.com. 29 May 2014. “The History of Nordic Walking”.
Ferris Jabr (September 3, 2014). “Why Walking Helps Us Think.” The New Yorker.
Emma Lindberg (September 29, 2016). Work It Out: How Exercise Benefits the Brain.
Wendy Suzuki Ted Talk (November 2017). The brain-changing benefits of exercise.
© Virgilio Postigo Cubo, 2020