Walking Poles for Health Benefits and Therapy

Nordic Walking and Trekking Pole Health Study Results

Senior Couple Exercising With Walking Poles

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Walking with poles has been touted as having many benefits for health and fitness. Health care providers and therapists may recommend walking poles for people with conditions that affect their balance or exercise capacity. You may also have friends who tell you how much using poles has helped them maintain an active lifestyle, whether Nordic walking on pavement or using trekking poles on natural trails.

What does the research say about whether these benefits are supported by proven results? It is good to be a bit skeptical, as those who produce and market walking poles and trekking poles have a stake in the answer. It is also good for doctors and therapists to explore using them for different conditions, as long as they are objective as to whether benefits are seen.

In looking at research, it is also important to note whether the studies compared walking with poles to regular walking, other forms of exercise, or to be inactive. How you use the poles is also important. If a study talks about Nordic walking or exerstriding, the poles are being used to engage more muscles and boost the intensity of exercise. This does not occur if the poles are simply used passively to enhance walking stability.

Senior Fitness and Walking With Poles

Many studies have been done on the fitness benefits of walking with poles as you age. Comparing Nordic walking with poles with regular walking, resistance training, and with being sedentary, one systematic review of studies found these effects for participants aged 60 to 92 years old:

  • Balance: Nordic walking improved dynamic balance (the ability to maintain balance while in motion) better than regular walking and resistance training. Both regular and Nordic walking improved functional balance (balance used in your activities of daily living) compared to being sedentary. Interestingly, Nordic walking had a negative effect on static balance (ability to maintain a position while motionless).
  • Flexibility: Nordic walking improved the flexibility of the lower body better than regular walking and the flexibility of the upper body better than resistance training.
  • Aerobic Capacity: Nordic walking improved aerobic capacity compared to resistance training or being sedentary, but regular walking showed even better improvement.
  • Muscle Strength: Nordic walking improved the muscle strength of the lower body better than resistance training and being sedentary. It improved the muscle strength of the upper body better than being sedentary.
  • Quality of Life: Nordic walking improved the quality of life better than regular walking or resistance training.
  • Health Indices: Nordic walking improved body composition, lipid profile, and cardiovascular outcomes compared to being sedentary.

While many of the benefits might be seen with other forms of exercise, some of the largest effects were in the quality of life, showing that people enjoyed walking with poles. That is a big factor in being consistent with physical activity.

Nordic walking also improved all of the components of physical fitness for seniors—cardiovascular, strength, flexibility, and balance.

A senior may use walking poles rather than another mobility aid such as a cane or a walker. A therapist may suggest this as a choice, where appropriate. This can help him maintain self-esteem and walk with confidence.

Increasing Exercise Intensity

The CDC, the American Heart Association, and other health authorities recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week to reduce health risks. But some people can't walk fast enough to raise their heart rates into the moderate-intensity zone and they may not be able to tolerate running. Nordic walking increases the intensity of exercise at a constant speed.

People with chronic heart failure, coronary artery disease, osteoarthritis of the knee, or obesity can use walking poles and get the benefits of moderate-intensity exercise at a walking speed they can achieve. Nordic walking can result in burning more calories during an exercise session than walking without poles, and a small study saw benefits for weight loss.

Nordic walking may be used for rehabilitation as well as maintaining a healthy amount of exercise.

Several studies have shown Nordic walking to be equal to or superior to brisk walking as a cardiovascular exercise for healthy people.

Walking Poles and Parkinson's Disease

Physical exercise is important therapeutically to maintain mobility and quality of life for people with Parkinson's disease. Nordic walking has been included in over five dozen studies, including a few randomized controlled trials. Most of these report favorable outcomes. But when the data is fully analyzed, Nordic walking has only a small amount of evidence that it is therapeutically beneficial for people with Parkinson's disease. Other complementary physical therapies have better evidence, including dancing, robotic gait training, and hydrotherapy.

Walking with poles is likely to be a good form of physical activity and may give more confidence in walking. But a systematic review of studies says that better-designed research is needed to support recommending it rather than other forms of exercise for therapeutic benefits in Parkinson's disease.

Since that review, there have been studies that showed benefits of Nordic walking for improving postural stability and gait for people with Parkinson's disease. Continued studies will show whether this is strong evidence.

Walking With Poles and Peripheral Arterial Disease

If you have peripheral arterial disease (PAD), you may have pain when walking (claudication) and find yourself limited to walking only short distances. Yet walking is prescribed for rehabilitation when you have PAD. A 24-week program of Nordic walking was conducted by two different teams of researchers. It was shown to be effective in improving aerobic fitness and walking duration. They also had a reduced amount of claudication pain and perceived claudication during exercise compared with a control group that didn't exercise.

However, when one of the groups of researchers then compared regular walking with Nordic walking (using the exerstriding technique), they found better results for walking without the poles. Those who didn't walk with poles had better walking endurance with a constant work rate treadmill test. With both types of walking, there were better tissue oxygenation and delaying the onset of claudication pain. Both groups thought they had improved physical function and walking distance. Most of the test subjects were older men, so these results may vary for women. The study supports walking as therapy for the peripheral arterial disease but showed that walking with poles is not superior.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer treatment by surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can result in problems with movement in the upper body. Upper body exercise is an important component of rehabilitation, and cardiovascular exercise is also beneficial during and after breast cancer treatment. A couple of small studies found that walking with walking poles improved shoulder mobility and upper body muscular endurance for breast cancer patients. It also did not worsen existing lymphedema.

A Word From Verywell

Using walking poles can be beneficial for exercise for healthy people, seniors, and those with various conditions. If your doctor or therapist suggests walking poles, discuss with her how they should be used. The technique you use to get a boost in exercise intensity (Nordic walking or exerstriding) is different from that used for better stability. Knowing how to use them correctly can ensure you get all the benefits.

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