How Walking Poles Changed My Mind About Fitness Walking

Carla Birnberg by Carla Birnberg | August 20th, 2009 | 14 Comments
topic: Fitness

feature-photoIt’s with a little embarrassment that I admit I’m an avowed NON walker-for-exercise. I walk when there’s a destination involved and rarely for the sheer sport of it. But it’s so easy — all you need is a pair of shoes and a place to amble — and walking for as little as 30 minutes a day reduces the risk of heart disease, breast cancer and colon cancer. And walking for 15 minutes, if researchers in the U.K. are indeed correct, lessens chocolate cravings.

So it’s with more than a little embarrassment that I confess I thought (note the past tense) fitness walking wasn’t enough bang for my workout buck. It seemed as though I’d have to walk for far longer than I cared to exercise in order to reap any benefits. Sure, intellectually I knew otherwise, but I never claimed to be an intellectual exerciser. And don’t get me started on the boredom. Somewhere along the way, I decided that walking as a workout would be entirely dull.

As a result, I was pretty curious when a neighbor suddenly started carrying a pair of poles on her daily walks. I’d been a fitness writer long enough to know they were Nordic walking poles, yet that was pretty much where my knowledge ended. And where my curiosity continued.

You can burn 20 to 40% more calories with walking poles

It turns out walking poles are quite popular in Europe and are now beginning to make their way to the U.S. and Canada. They originated in Finland and are favored by cross-country skiers as a summer training method. The poles focus on working the upper body while walking, and this addition of the torso muscles lets you walk at a slower pace yet receive a more challenging overall workout. You can, in fact, burn anywhere from an additional 20 to 40 percent more calories per session.

A 20 to 40 percent increase? There’s that bang-for-the-exercise-buck I’d been searching for. But I still wanted to see if the addition of walking poles could really spark excitement about walking sans destination.

walking-polesI was fortunate enough to be able to check out the Gaiam’s walking poles kit, and I readily admit to being surprised by what I found. I watched the accompanying DVD a few times prior to picking up a pole (I’m painfully aware of my lack of coordination), and it was fantastic. It explained precisely how to use and assemble the poles in a fashion I could understand — and provided sample workouts for after I mastered the basics.

My walk felt more challenging heart-rate wise — and more interesting

My first walking pole excursion felt awkward and silly. I couldn’t shake the feeling I belonged more on the Alps than in my neighborhood. Then I hit my stride. It took me about 10 minutes, but I got into a groove, and it clicked how I could utilize the sticks to exercise my upper body and take some of the ‘work’ away from my legs. And, once I mastered the pole movement, I found it prompted me to walk more erect with my shoulders relaxed, which is something I need to focus on given all my time in front of the computer.

I was pole-swinging, my upper body muscles were working, and I was happily walking without a destination. My walk felt more challenging heart-rate wise, more interesting given the need to focus on the poles, and almost meditative once I found my rhythm. I was smitten.

Who would I recommend join me in my new walking pole adventure? Everyone. The great thing about the walking sticks is you can adjust them to your needs, they allow walkers of different paces to exercise together, and they are perfect for travel workouts. Sure, they take a few tries to get used to. But once you do, you’ll be glad you made the effort. I can admit I entirely am.


  1. Can you use the poles on flat trails, or do you need a hilly area?

    sleeptalkr | August 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  2. The addition of Nordic walking poles makes for a fantastic exercise. I highly recommend the addition of poles to improve your current walking routine or to make beginning a new one easier. I especially recommend the poles for anybody with lower body joint issues or a ‘bad’ back. The poles distribute the workload throughout the entire body making the exercise seem easier while actually increasing calorie expenditure (the burn).

    In addition to checking out the Gaiam poles I would recommend checking out LEKI Nordic walking poles. They have different hand straps that make it so you don’t have to grip the poles as much. This can make it more comfortable and prevent hand cramping.

    Ashlee D S | August 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  3. Just yesterday I saw a woman walking with poles and wondered why she wasn’t on a ski slope. Now I get it! I’m definitely going to give this a try.

    Stefanie | August 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  4. I laugh, sleeptalkr, at how much I really did love the DVD as it explains everything so well.

    the poles c an be used on ALL TERRAINS from hills to flat to mushy earth or sand to pavement!

    MizFit | August 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  5. I have a pair, and love the fact that it takes away my self consciousness! I just get into my rhythm…and when I do reach the end of the walk, I want more! It is so fun, I would love to do it more. You really do feel your core muscles, arm muscles. Recently on a family camping trip, we used my poles to help keep our balance while crossing a boggy area of a mountain road. No wet shoes!! Also, I felt prepared if a wild animal decided to check us out.. :)

    Gntlplaces | August 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  6. Great idea for open areas, but i have to say I found it difficult while in Europe to have people walking down very crowded streets swinging their poles. It was intimidating

    Dian | August 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  7. I have enjoyed pole walking (Nordic walking) for well over a year now. I love the synchronous movement of arms and legs, and my upper back muscles love the fact they are set back and squared. It relieves tension in my neck as well as my forearms (after hours each day at a keyboard), by virtue of the grip-release technique on the pole handles.

    Almost any terrain, especially flat, works very well with pole walking. The poles I have from Exel can have different tips depending on the surface; spikes (like on cross country ski poles) for looser surfaces like sand or soil, and rubber booties for the cement I usually find myself on, since 90% of my walking is in my local neighborhood.

    It’s the best! :-)

    April | August 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  8. I bought mine right after a heart attack 2+ yrs ago. I had been thinking about them for a while, then went for them. I totally love them!!! It makes for a total body workout, and I feel so good when I finish. For those of us who should not run, because of either previous injuries or other issues, using these poles means we can still go really fast, which is so much fun. As for people staring, let them – they don’t know what a great time they are missing!

    Ruth | August 26th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  9. Walking with poles is the best! Who would have thought that walking with poles could provide an effective workout and at the same time the poles are helping individuals with balance issues get out and walk more.

    I host free Nordic Walking Classes for MS, PD and Wounded Warriors. It is important to note that all walking poles are not created the same. Beware of the cheap twist-locking adjustable length/telescoping/collapsible poles. One-piece poles that are sized correctly are safer, lighter and much more durable than cheap twist-lock poles from China.

    The same goes for snowshoe poles. A running store manager told me that his twist-lock snowshoe poles (name brand) were terrible and an embarrassment to the store. Cheap twist-locking poles are destined for the land fill.

    SWIX and EXEL make quality one-piece poles that will prove to be user friendly and dependable.

    Pete Edwards | August 27th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  10. I inherited a couple of poles from a relative and have never used them. They are sitting in my umbrella stand. How can I learn to use them?

    Susan O'Neal | August 27th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  11. Susan, Im gonna look and see if you can buy JUST the Gaiam DVD. I adored it and Im so s-l-o-w to lean new stuff (yeah, it’s just who I am :) I need a dvd which lays it all out for me sloooowly).

    Miz | August 28th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  12. Thanks so much, Candy, for the enthusiastic endorsement of my book.

    Ruth, your story is inspiring. I agree with you about “let them stare!”

    Susan, please take a look at my Nordic Walking book and check my blog. There are are links to on-line instructional videos. Look for them under “Technique” (“Labels” on the left side of the home page).

    I try to include as many free or inexpensive clinics and classes as I can, such as those offered. A new umbrella organization called Nordic Walking North America (We do not allow links in comments) is planning to compile a directory of instructors across the country. If you indicate the city (or metro area) and state where you live, I’ll try to find someone for you.

    Claire Walter | August 28th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  13. I also use a walking stick for health reasons. It really helps take some pressure off my knees.

    ron w | July 24th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  14. Can we use a walking pole for hiking like a trekking pole?

    Marge | May 25th, 2016 | Comment Permalink

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