Based on cross-country skiing, Nordic walking is an outdoor activity that will work your whole body without impacting too much on your back, knees and ankles. This is exercising at a level that you can chat, have a giggle, and at the same time become stronger and get a real sense of satisfaction.
Nordic walking works the whole body. What’s more it’s hard enough, but not too hard – it can be adapted to suit everyone’s individual fitness levels. For most people it will feel like a very spirited, energetic walk, but without that ‘I can’t breathe’ feeling that sometimes happens with running.
What’s special about Nordic walking?
The difference between this, and walking briskly or with trekking poles, lies in the way we use the poles to propel the body forwards. You wear a special glove that attaches to the pole, so there’s no need to grip it and you can’t drop it. The poles hit the floor and as you push on the pole your body moves up and forward.
You strengthen your shoulders, arms and core with this movement, and it’s this propulsion that gives you the momentum to walk faster and stronger. You then get into a fabulous cycle where the poles help you do more, and you use your body strength to push them, thus building your strength and fitness and therefore meaning you can do more and more.
And, and, it feels nice. Simple as. I’ve known people say it say it makes them smile, or that they feel like they’re flying. It makes walking feel good.
Why, specifically, in relation to cancer?
We know that exercise has a really important role for those recovering from cancer, that’s already well established. Nordic walking is an accessible and low-cost way to get active again, so it can simply be a way of getting going.
It is, however a clever sport: The amount of exertion involved in Nordic walking can be particularly helpful in overcoming fatigue and I find that many people can Nordic walk at the ideal 70% HRM (see the section on fatigue and heart rate). Not only this, but they can sustain 70%, or thereabouts, for longer than they would without the help of the poles. It also helps to restore good posture, to burn fat and to build, or re-build, muscles.
We know how important weight-bearing exercise is to bone health after cancer treatment, to prevent osteoporosis. Nordic walking is weight bearing, so it ticks that box. Most advice about weight-bearing exercise focuses on the spine, pelvis and femur (thigh bone). Over the years I have wondered whether the action of striking the ground with the poles would improve bone density in the arms. I haven’t been able to find anything concrete on this, but I sounded the idea out with a lovely Doctor I work with (whilst Nordic walking) and she felt that certainly theoretically, it could. I’ll keep searching for clinical evidence on that one.
Of course, an inevitable benefit of Nordic walking is that it gets us outdoors. Exercising outside is incredibly good for improving mood and helping to overcome anxiety, depression and a whole host of issues around mental and emotional health. You get a sense of the seasons, hear birds singing, and top up your Vitamin D levels. Nordic walking is often done in groups (better at first if you’re self-conscious about using the poles) and these tend to be highly sociable.
Many cancer support organisations, like Maggie’s, offer Nordic walking as part of their programmes of activity. Something that’s struck me over the years that I’ve run classes for Maggie’s and Breast Cancer Haven is the calibre of conversations my walkers have with each other. Nordic walks can offer a rare chance to chew the fat with people who’ve been in the same boat as you, and know how you feel, without you necessarily needing to explain.
Women with breast cancer
There is a growing body of scientific evidence around Nordic walking as a rehab tool, and lots specifically around women recovering from breast surgery. Using the special poles targets the muscles that are often affected by breast surgery and the rhythmic action of the arms and shoulders helps to support lymphatic drainage. A recent study in Italy said:
‘In order to choose a physical exercise having complete efficacy against breast cancer treatment effects on the side of treatment, particular attention should be paid to Nordic Walking. Nordic Walking has been reported to achieve balanced postural changes in breast cancer-related treatment postural disorders, increases in upper extremity strength, improvements in cardio-metabolic and respiratory measures and has been used in the prevention and treatment of upper limb lymphoedema.
The benefits relating to upper body lymphoedema are impressive. A Dutch study’s results showed that after 10 weeks: ‘patients’ vitality had improved, whereas perceived shoulder symptom severity and limitations in daily activities had decreased… data indicated that range of motion of the affected shoulder improved significantly within 10 weeks of training. Group interviews at 6 months follow-up confirmed that patients had appreciated the physical and psychosocial benefits of the intervention.
So how to start?
As with other types of exercise, you’ll get much more out of it if you do it well. Most instructors offer free trial sessions for people to give it a go, and then offer technique classes so that you can learn how to use the poles well. Look online at nordicwalking.co.uk or britishnordicwalking.org.uk for your local instructor or, if you’re in the London area, contact me.
Photos courtesy of Maggie’s and Pennies