Nordic Walking Can Improve Your Heart Function. Here's How It Works.

A recent study found people with coronary artery disease saw improved health outcomes after committing to the workout for 12 weeks.
You can up your walking game and help your heart health by adding Nordic poles to your workout.
Yashoda via Getty Images
You can up your walking game and help your heart health by adding Nordic poles to your workout.

It’s widely known that walking is great for you. Research shows that walking can cut your risk of heart disease, reduce joint pain and naturally relieve stress.

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology in June also found that a specific kind of walking can be beneficial for people with coronary artery disease: Nordic walking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronary artery disease “is the most common type of heart disease in the United States.” The study results suggest that people with the disease saw improved heart function after committing to Nordic walking for three months.

Nordic walking involves using poles similar to ski poles as you move. Unlike a regular walk, this kind of walking incorporates your upper body muscles in addition to your lower body muscles. According to the International Nordic Walking Federation, Nordic walking began as an off-season workout for skiers and has been around since the mid-1900s.

For the study, 130 people with coronary artery disease were randomly split into one of three groups. The first group followed a 12-week high-intensity interval training program; the second group followed a 12-week moderate-to-vigorous intensity training program; the third group followed a 12-week Nordic walking program.

After the workout program, participants were observed for 14 weeks, and their functional capacity ― or their ability to exercise or perform daily activities that require physical effort ― was tested by measuring how far they walked in six minutes.

Additionally, the researchers had participants fill out a heart disease-specific questionnaire and a 36-question health survey. Depression levels were also measured using the Beck Depression Inventory-II, which is commonly used to measure depression after heart attacks. Participants were tested at the beginning, the middle and the end of the study.

Nordic walking yielded the best results.

While all participants saw favorable health outcomes, those in the Nordic walking group experienced the largest increase in functional capacity compared to their baseline level at the start of the study.

In other words, those who committed to the 12-week Nordic walking program were most able to show increased exercise capacity during the six-minute walk test. And one’s functional capacity is “an important predictor of future cardiovascular events in patients with [coronary artery disease],” the study stated.

This is likely because of the upper and lower body muscle groups Nordic walking activates. Using upper body strength to move and stabilize the poles while also activating your lower body can increase your heart rate, which increases your cardiovascular benefits.

Dr. Chip Lavie, who led the study’s accompanying editorial, told Medical News Today that “the addition of Nordic poles to moderate to vigorous-intensity walking is a simple, accessible option to enhance improvements in walking capacity, increase energy expenditure, engage upper body musculature, and improve other functional parameters such as posture, gait, and balance all that could improve walking speed.”

This is important for everyone, but especially for those with coronary artery disease.

“Walking consistently is a great form of exercise that reduces cardiovascular mortality by addressing key cardiovascular risk factors: it helps reduce cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, improve blood sugar control, helps with healthy weight management and often correlates to other healthy habits and behaviors,” Dr. Tamanna Singh, co-director of the sports cardiology center at Cleveland Clinic, previously told HuffPost.

Additionally, exercise is one of the recommended treatments for coronary artery disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Try to get about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity cardio per week.
GoodLifeStudio via Getty Images
Try to get about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity cardio per week.

Here’s how to reap the benefits yourself.

Singh noted that the American Heart Association “currently recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise per week or a combination.” Walking counts toward your weekly moderate-intensity exercise count, according to the AHA.

Keep in mind that these are the minimum recommendations — more exercise equals more results. In fact, those who go above and beyond the minimum recommendations live longer, studies show.

To get started with Nordic walking, you’ll need a set of trekking poles and a good walking route. Nordic walking can be done in quiet, paved neighborhoods or on rocky, hilly terrain ― it’s not just for hikers on trails.

For poles, you can purchase a pair from places like Amazon or from the American Nordic Walking Association. Make sure to get the right length ― they should be about two-thirds of your height. Here are a few examples:

This set of anti-shock Nordic trekking poles from The Fit Life comes in five different colors and feature a comfortable grip for your hands. It also has pads for the bottom of the poles to make walking simpler. The kit has more than 8,000 five-star reviews.
These ultra-strong trekking poles from the brand Montem can be easily adjusted so you get get the right height for you. They're lightweight and come in multiple color options; they're also highly-recommended with more than 1,000 five-star reviews.

When walking, maintain proper posture by pushing your shoulders back, and keep your head straight so your ribcage stays upright and open. Use the poles to strike the ground on either side of your feet as you walk, ensuring that they hit in the middle of your stride. The poles should be kept at an angle and you should grip the pole as it hits the ground so you have better leverage to push off. This will help you to engage your upper body. Repeat as you walk.

If you have coronary heart disease or any other heart problems, make sure to talk to your doctor before starting.

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