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Health

Walking poles could add an upper body workout to your walks — and ease back pain

There’s no arguing that walking brings you a range of health benefits — it helps your heart, blood sugar, mental health and more. But what if you wanted to add intensity to your walks and get your upper body more involved? Walking poles might be the answer.

Research has found that walking with poles can burn more calories and raise your heart rate even though you may not feel like you’re exerting yourself more than with regular walking. It can increase your metabolism and activate more muscles. It benefits your blood pressure and can improve your quality of life. And walking poles give you a full-body workout.  

“The poles incorporate the upper body into the lower body through the core. It’s a much more complete workout, just by adding the poles,” Jon Schultz, a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy based in Iowa and a certified master trainer for Urban Poling, tells TODAY.com.

Walking poles aren’t just for the young at heart.AzmanJaka / Getty Images

Who should — and who shouldn’t — use walking poles

Walking poles aren’t for everyone, but most people can benefit from them. “It’s a very low-injury type of activity,” Schultz says. If you don’t know if they would be a good option for you or you’re not sure how to use them, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist.

You might want to give them a try if you:

  • Are already walking regularly and want to switch up your workouts.
  • Have pain from arthritis or plantar fasciitis. The poles can help offload the weight, so you may feel less pain.
  • Are an athlete looking for a cross-training option. “Sometimes it’s hard to get to the pool or the gym. With these, you can just go out on the street,” Schultz says.
  • Want to improve your posture.
  • Spend a lot of time working at a desk or on a computer. “Being on our devices and our computers has impacted how people move,” Schultz says. “Having your arms moving reciprocally can really free up your upper back. I have a lot of female clients with upper neck pain and pain between the shoulder blades, and they’ve noticed a huge improvement in how that area feels.”

If you have Parkinson’s disease, balance issues or any problems with your shoulders, walking poles might not be suitable for you — your doctor can help you decide. 

What to look for in a walking pole

If you want to give walking poles a try, think about where and how you’ll use them. Fitness or Nordic walking poles are designed for sidewalks and paths. (If you’re planning on hiking or walking on rougher trails with your poles, you’ll want trekking poles, which are designed for more rugged surfaces.)

These are some features to compare when you’re choosing poles:

  • Length: You’ll want to get poles that are right for your height—most are adjustable, but check the sizing, especially if you’re very tall or short.
  • Grip: Some poles have left and right handles, while with other models both handles are the same. Schultz noted that people with arthritis in their hands might prefer a more ergonomic design.
  • Hand support: Poles may have a ledge that supports the bottom of your hand, a half or full glove, or a strap. Pressing down on the ledge as you use the poles can help activate your core. When using a glove or strap, you can release the pole when it’s behind you and then catch it as you pull your arm forward.
  • Tips: At the bottom of a walking pole, you’ll have an angled rubber booty or paw, or a rubber tip like you would see on a cane. You might also have a basket, which can help if you walk in sand or snow. Some models offer several options, and with those, you can change the tip based on your walking conditions.
Active senior woman doing nordic walking at the waterfront in winter
Walking poles are great for winter.OR Images / Getty Images

How to walk with a walking pole

Walking with poles feels different at first. A lot of people don’t move their arms when they walk, or they move one more than the other. “Integrating the upper and lower body together is a little strange,” Schultz says. It’s a new skill, and it takes a little bit of motor control. But once people learn how to do it, most like it.

Schultz has people start by dragging the poles behind them while getting into alternating arm movement, bringing their arms up to the handshake position. “People aren’t used to having their arms come up a little bit higher,” he says. As you start using the poles, he says you want to:

  • Plant the pole.
  • Push down on the handle.
  • Propel to increase your stride length. 

“Sometimes we have to even use one pole at a time until we can get both poles together,” he says.

If you’re already walking regularly, Schultz recommends starting with 15 to 20 minutes of pole walking. You might feel a little sore at first, since walking with poles is a full-body workout. Gradually, you can work up to two or three times a week for 45 to 50 minutes at a somewhat vigorous pace.

The poles can also help a little when you’re walking up hills, and you can use them for stability if you’re doing squats or lunges.

The bottom line

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