Nordic walking, the strange Scandinavian sport helping people overcome injury

Kristen Pratt was working in her Geneva office one day when she looked out the window and saw something that she found both surprising and amusing.

A group of people were walking along with poles, almost as if they were cross-country skiing without snow.

What started out as mere curiosity that day, however, developed into a passion she has now shared with hundreds of others.

‘It was too good to be true’

Nordic walking is widely practiced in Scandinavia and other European countries, including Germany, but little known in Australia.

Kristen, now in her 60s, says Nordic walking has amazing health benefits.(Supplied)

Ms Pratt believes sport is the key to many people becoming active again.

“To be honest, I looked out my window and burst out laughing when I saw these people,” she said.

“But then I found out a bit about it and just thought it was too good to be true.”

A former competitive runner, Ms Pratt decided she wanted to try this strange sport, and was amazed at the effect.

“I get a better Nordic walking workout than I ever did running,” she said.

“That’s probably faster than you would get running, but the interesting thing with Nordic walking is it’s easier to hold it there, you can maintain that heart-rate.”

Thanks to Ms Pratt’s efforts, the activity is growing in popularity in Canberra, and she hopes to make the geographically flat city the Nordic walking capital of Australia.

People in athletic clothing holding walking poles and wearing racing bibs walk together.
Nordic walking has grown as a sport in Canberra.(Supplied: Capital Nordic Walking)

Nordic walking helping those with pain, injury stay active

Typically popular with older people, the sport is slowly drawing in the younger generations.

For Jacinta Greenwood, Nordic walking was the activity that helped her continue to be involved in sports after suffering from injury and chronic pain.

“I used to be a figure skater, I was an Australian representative when I was younger, so exercise has been a really big part of my life,” she said.

A woman on a walking track, wearing a t-shirt that says
Jacinta Greenwood, a Nordic walker in Canberra(Supplied by Michael Thompson)

A former elite athlete, Ms. Greenwood developed pain in her joints and underwent surgery on her spine.

She also suffers from arthritis.

“When I found out about Nordic walking, I gave it a go and I found that I was able to walk so much longer in comfort and in much less pain than I could without the poles, so that was a gamer-changer for me, she said.

“Plus the engagement of the upper body was giving me a really good cardio-vascular workout as well, which is hard to do when you have back and hip problems sometimes.”

Now an exercise physiologist, she said she was constantly recommending Nordic walking to others.

“[I] use Nordic walking with my clients who have severe pain or disability or injury and things like that and they’ve found it incredibly beneficial as well, “she said.

“It’s actually really incredible how quickly you can get your heart-rate up with what appears to be fairly minimal effort.”

So what is Nordic walking, exactly?

Jacinta talks and laughs with two others, holding walking poles.
Former athlete Jacinta Greenwood found Nordic walking enabled her to be active despite her injuries and chronic pain.(Supplied by Michael Thompson)

Nordic walking originated in Finland, and was devised as a way for cross-country skiers to stay fit during the warmer months of the year.

It involves the use of poles, and the walker applies force with the poles with each step, therefore using more of their body when they walk.

The effect is muscle building, not just in the legs but the upper body muscles as well.

“People confuse it with hiking – it’s absolutely not hiking, it’s different poles and different benefits,” Ms Pratt said.

Ms Pratt said she had first discovered the potential Nordic walking had for helping people with chronic illness through her mother-in-law.

“I was a carer for my mother-in-law who had Parkinson’s,” she said.

She said for people with an illness like Parkinson’s disease, the sport gave them the opportunity to be active while also addressing the issues that were holding them back.

“The poles give them stability, the poles actually push you up, so it opens your chest and maintains that lovely posture,” she said.

“The poles become extensions of your arms, they allow you to harness the power of your upper body.

“For people with joint pain they can take up to 10 kilos of load off their feet, ankles, knees, back. It’s a real game-changer for them.”

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