Want a healthier, easier workout? Look to Finland for the answer
Better than high-intensity interval or other moderate to vigorous exercises
Walking is great exercise on its own, but researchers at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute have found that the simple addition of poles can provide even more health benefits.
Nordic walking, as it is called, originated in Finland where it is common, said scientist Jennifer Reed, who directs the institute's exercise physiology and cardiovascular health laboratory.
"It's just part and parcel of nordic communities to have poles when walking and hiking," she said, adding that it was a Finnish physiotherapist she works with who inspired the team to study this form of exercise.
Reed and lead researcher Tasuku Terada, a postdoctoral fellow, compared the effects of three kinds of exercise on 130 cardiac patients: high-intensity interval training (HIIT), where people have short periods of recovery between bursts of activity; moderate to vigorous continuous exercise, such as walking or using a rowing machine; and nordic walking.
Nordic walking stood out
The study's results were published recently in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.
"We found all three types of exercise were beneficial in improving different types of health. That includes quality of life and mental health," said Terada.
He also measured something called functional capacity, or the distance a person can cover in six minutes of walking after doing the target exercise.
"[It's] an important measure as it predicts future cardiovascular events and mortality," said Terada.
And that's where nordic walking stood out.
It improved functional capacity by 19 per cent, while HIIT improved it by 13 per cent and moderate to vigorous continuous exercise by 12 per cent.
"Nordic walking … involves the upper body and it probably helps in terms of balance regulation, so dynamic balance, stability and maybe increases the stride length when patients walk, so that may have had a positive effect on walking capacity as well," said Terada.
Nordic walking lessons
None of this was a surprise to Barb Gormley, director of education for the company Urban Poling and a nordic walking teacher in Toronto.
It really can be done anywhere.- Jennifer Reed, University of Ottawa
Gormley said it's relatively simple to pick up, but there are a few things to keep in mind — the three Ps of nordic walking.
"Plant the pole in the proper place with the proper technique, and then with the outside edge of your hand press down, there's your second P, the ledge of your handle, and it will propel you forward," said Gormley.
She also said it is easy to overdo it on your first attempt because it feels so easy.
"So if you're new you just have to pace yourself and start with about a third of what you would normally do for regular walking."
Aside from the physical benefits, Gormley said it puts people in a good mood.
"I feel that in myself, you know those happy hormones surge through your brain, and then all of my participants who surround me, we're all in this happy headspace."
The scientists at the University of Ottawa echoed this.
All three exercise interventions improved people's depression scores, but the best exercise is one that you will do, and Reed said that's where nordic walking might win out.
"You simply need a place to walk with poles, and so it can be done inside a shopping mall at no cost, it can be done outside, it really can be done anywhere," said Reed.