WEIRD FASCINATION SERIES - EXERCISE : Nordic Walking - That's Old People and Sticks Right?!

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I’m just back from a lovely morning with my Tip the Balance Walking buddies, which inspired me to put pen to paper for today’s blog. The groups are growing in number, as my boss Helen took on a number of us as new Instructors, and it’s great to see more and more people each month discover the joys of this hobby – one of the fastest growing exercise trends of our time.


“But it’s just walking with sticks for old people right?!”Nooooooooo!

Whilst I fully appreciate that many of our membership are over 60, I discovered Nordic Walking just after I hit 40 and was honestly fascinated by it.


As a biological scientist I have always found the biomechanics of the human body (as well as the rest of it) really interesting. I had heard that this way of exercising involved using the whole of your body to walk, but I didn’t really know how. I’d heard that you could do it even if you had dodgy knees – the classic excuse for many of us not doing any exercise after a certain age. I had also heard it might help my running, and as a very un-natural runner, with a shocking lack of running style or finesse, I’m after all the help I can get!


So, 4 years ago, I dug around on the internet, came across Nordic Walking UK and found a local group nearby who were running some sessions. I got one of my running buddies to come along to a free taster with me, because, like many other people, I had the misconception that it would be full of older folk! Funny how we let such thought get in our own way! I didn’t really notice how old anyone else was and I’m pretty sure they felt the same.


After 40 minutes of  instruction, and gradually building up the technique, I was amazed! I felt my legs, my bum and my arms working hard and with a little tweak of my technique, felt my core muscles light up in a cross across my wobbly belly! Wowzers! This stuff really worked! I’d been doing pilates and yoga for a couple for years to support running, and love them both, but this was a revelation - in a park, in the middle of South Gloucestershire in my bobble hat!


4 weeks later I had completed a ‘Learn to Nordic Walk” course and received my Freedom Passport – a great system, a little like Parkrun, where you can then walk with any Nordic Walking UK group around the UK. In that 4 weeks I made new friends with some amazing people. Yes, they are older than me, but I’m not sure how our paths would have crossed otherwise. They have, like me, become regular walkers and even better friends. Their life stories inspire me and warm my heart. They are so rich in life experiences; a true wealth of knowledge on which to draw and great fun to spend time with.

I’m now their instructor, but we still walk out every week as friends. We chat as we walk and then make sure we have time to share a coffee together afterwards. With several opportunities to walk across the area during the week, it’s always great to hear who has walked where, who they have seen, and what the news is from our friends within our All Seasons Nordic Walking South Gloucestershire group.

This morning we strode out along the Bristol-Bath Cycle path, enjoying the primroses, bluebells and cowslips of spring at our feet, as the newest and freshest green buds of spring burst before our eyes. Yes, it was drizzling, but when you get your gear on and walk in all weathers, confident in a nice hot cuppa at the end of it all, what’s not to love?! Men and women of all shapes, sizes, ages and fitness levels coming together to enjoy being outdoors, in each other’s company. Bliss.


So why is this ‘sport’ such a growing trend and was all that stuff I heard true?


“It’s just for old people.”

Really? You’re going to miss out because you think you might be the youngest there? So what?! We have walkers from their 30s to their 80s, just in our small pocket of South Gloucestershire. I’m sure there are all ages walking with NWUK elsewhere in the country. No-one cares! However, all that said, it is the ideal activity for older adults to maintain their mobility and help them to lead active lives for longer. Equally though it is a brilliant thing to get out to do at lunchtime, easing aches and pains associated with sitting at your desk for hours. You don’t even need to get all that sweaty! Not everyone wants to be bashing out boot-camp burpees in their lunch hour!


“It’s like skiing, I’ve seen it, and I can’t ski”

Nordic Walking was developed in Finland by athletes who were trying to keep fit during the summer months ready for their winter cross country ski season. Some say it was actually developed by the ski pole manufacturers who wanted to boost the sales of the poles in the summer! Either way, this popular Nordic trend reached the UK in the mid 90s. We are still regularly asked where our skis are when we are out walking though! Thankfully, we don’t have to buy much kit apart from a decent pair of flexible, waterproof shoes, and a coat for walking here in the UK! As Instructors, we always have poles to borrow, but even if you buy your own, these start at around £50 – nothing compared to kitting yourself out in full ski gear for a ski trip to get cold and wet whilst falling down a mountain side!!!


“What are the sticks for then?”

Nordic poles introduce 2 major benefits to our walking. They encourage us to adopt a better posture by engaging more of the muscles in our upper body. This provides lift, which makes walking feel easier, and propulsion, to increase our speed.  They are different to trekking poles, in that we always use 2 of them at a 45° angle for propulsion rather than trekkers using 1 or 2, perpendicular to the ground for stability.  We always encourage our walkers to try lots of our different poles before they decide which work for them – fixed length, adjustable, or fully telescopic poles for the avid travellers in the group.


“I have been walking for 40+ years, so why do I need to go and learn how to do it with a stick?!”

Like any new skill, there are some key techniques to learn with Nordic Walking; not only to help you stay injury free, but also so you get the very best work out from your new hobby. In our Free Taster session, we break down the technique for you to help you understand the mechanics of it and how it differs to trekking with poles. Then in our 4 week ‘Learn to Nordic Walk’ Course, we put it all back together again, tackling flat, steady walking, higher speed walking, going up and down hills, and some heart-rate raising drills to develop lots of the skills we need.


It’s lovely to see our course graduates after this 4 week course become part of the group; walking with us regularly, building new friendships and enjoying being outdoors and moving. Equally, our Wellbeing walks allow less mobile members of the group to get out there and enjoy Nordic Walking using specially designed, supportive poles at a gentler pace, whilst still building their fitness and strength; perfect for those recovering from injury or infirmity.


“Does it really make a difference to your fitness if it’s just walking?”

Absolutely! Nordic Walking uses both your upper and lower body, using 90% of your body’s skeletal muscles (which is more than when we run, swim or cycle). Lots of big muscle are used to move our body, but we also need to use lots of smaller muscles to stabilise the skeleton too (abdominal muscles and pelvic floor muscles in particular). We are building core strength/stability and toning our legs, buttocks, chest, shoulders and arms all at once! With this greater muscle activity comes a larger cardiovascular demand too. So, when you learn to do it properly, Nordic Walking burns approximately 20% more calories than ordinary walking too. Whoop!


If you’re tempted to give it a whirl, get in touch me at

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