Weight training and running might be your go-to workouts for improving heart health and functional capacity—the ability to carry our daily activities— but a new study suggests that Nordic walking, a low impact activity that uses specially designed poles to help propel your body forward, may be a better bet.
Researchers at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute found that patients with coronary artery disease (plaque buildup in the arteries) who did Nordic walking for 12 weeks had a greater increase in their functional capacity, compared with those who did high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or moderate-to-vigorous intensity continuous training (MICT).
“This is a key finding because lower functional capacity predicts higher risk of future cardiovascular events in people with coronary artery disease,” explained study author Jennifer L. Reed, Ph.D. “Nordic walking engages core, upper and lower body muscles while reducing loading stress at the knee, which may have resulted in greater improvements in functional capacity.”
A follow-up study found that benefits of Nordic walking on functional capacity were present after 26-weeks.
What is Nordic Walking?
Nordic walking began as a modern sport in Finland as a way for cross-country skiiers to exercize during the summer. Using the poles engages the upper body, making it a great full-body workout with both cardio and muscle-building perks.
“When you walk without poles, you activate muscles below the waist,” cardiologist Aaron Baggish, M.D., told Harvard’s HealthBeat. Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, was not affiliated with the Ottawa Heart Institute studies, but spent a year of work and study in Switzerland, where Nordic walking is popular.
“When you add Nordic poles, you activate all of the muscles of the upper body as well. You’re engaging 80 percent to 90 percent of your muscles, as opposed to 50 percent, providing a substantial calorie-burning benefit,” says Baggish.
What Did the Study Find?
The study observed 130 participants who had coronary artery disease and experience with reduced functional capacity. A 6-minute walking test set a baseline functional capacity number which was compared to a second 6-minute test at the study’s end. Participants were then split into three groups performing either HIIT (short bursts of intense exercise with little rest), MICT workouts (aerobic exercises like jogging or cycling), or Nordic walking twice weekly for 12 weeks.
Depression and quality of life remained the same across the board, but Nordic walking produced a 19 percent boost in functional capacity compared to HIIT’s 13 percent increase and MICT’s 12 percent.
Other Benefits of Nordic Walking
This isn’t the first research to extol the benefits of Nordic walking. Here are a few other reasons you might want to give it a try:
Improves oxygen uptake
On average, Nordic walking results in 20 percent higher oxygen consumption, caloric expenditure and heart rate compared to normal walking, according to previous research published by the Cooper Institute in Texas
A 2019 study found that Nordic walking was more effective than regular walking for weight loss.
Reduces back and knee pain
Nordic walking can reduce the severity of low back, hip and knee pain, according to research in the International Journal of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation.
Increases Muscle Activation
A 2018 study found that Nordic walking increases higher muscular activation than normal walking when using correct Nordic form. Researchers note walkers should use a diagonal-pole technique recommended by the International Nordic Walking Federation which involves a backward pole position and full control with proper grips and straps.
Alternatives to Nordic Walking
“Our research showing the superior benefits of Nordic walking on functional capacity highlights an alternative exercise option that requires minimal cost and equipment to improve physical and mental health,” Reed told CNN.
Still, if you’re not into Nordic walking, plenty of other exercises offer heart health and functional capacity benefits. A 2022 study found resistance training can improve functional capacity, as well as strength and balance. And the American Heart Association promotes running or any type of aerobic exercise to improve heart health.