Are There Benefits of Pole Walking for Weight Loss?

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“Are There Benefits to Pole
Walking for Weight Loss?” Exercise recommendations for
obesity have been referred to as “the mysterious case of
the public health guideline that is (almost) entirely ignored.” Governmental, scientific, and
professional organizations call for at least an hour of exercise
a day for weight management, but almost no obese
adults meet this target. Surveys suggest American men,
and women, watch TV ten times more than they exercise, and for
obese Americans, it may be even worse. Just 2% even reach 30 minutes
a day, and the percentage exceeding an hour a day
is expected to be close to zero. Why don’t obese individuals
exercise more? How about we just ask them? When questioned, obese adults
typically describe exercise as being “unpleasant, uncomfortable, and unenjoyable.” How can we break this vicious cycle,
where inactivity can lead to weight gain, which can lead to further
inactivity and more weight gain? The first thing to recognize is that “it is normal and natural
to be physically lazy.” “Nothing in biology makes sense
except in the light of evolution” is the title of a famous
essay written by a noted geneticist. Laziness is in our genes.


We evolved to instinctually avoid unnecessary exertion to conserve
energy for survival and reproduction. These days there’s no
shortage of available fuel, yet the hard-wired inertia remains. Our ancient ancestors exercised
only when it was necessary, or when it was fun, as a form of play. Just like dietary change for
weight control, the only way exercise is going to work long-term is if
it becomes a stable life-long habit. Exercise is only
effective if it’s sustainable. So, we need to restructure our surroundings
to require more physical activity, like using a treadmill
desk, and figure out how to make exercise more enjoyable.


It should just be a walk-in-
the park—literally, perhaps! Wise advice from a
1925 medical journal entry: “The best prescription to be written
for a walk is to take a dog…and a friend.” Listening to your favorite
music might also help. Music has been described as a “legal method”
for improving peak performance and, more importantly, the enjoyment
of high-intensity interval training. During exercise, listening to a
preferred playlist can significantly reduce your “rate of perceived exertion,” which is how hard you feel
your body is working. Put severely obese
youth on a treadmill and have them go until exhaustion with or without music, and those
listening to their favorite tunes tended to make it about 5% longer.


This was chalked up to
“attentional distraction;” the music may have just
helped them keep their mind off of the feelings of fatigue. If that’s the case, maybe
listening to a podcast or audiobook might have a similar effect. One way to up your walking
game is with walking poles. So-called Nordic walking, also
known as overstriding or Viking hiking, was originally developed in
Scandinavia to maintain cross-country ski athletes’
training in the summer but has since gained in popularity
worldwide as a general fitness activity. The augmented engagement of the
upper body musculature may result in an 18 to 22% increased calorie
expenditure over walking alone (depending, in part, on your
pole handling technique). The question I wanted to know
for my new book, though, was: Does that translate
into accelerated weight loss? Before and after studies demonstrate
weight loss with pole walking, compared to a sedentary control, but what about compared
to regular walking? Of the four such studies I could
locate, comparing thrice weekly 40 to 60-minute sessions of Nordic
walking compared to regular walking, every single one found no significant
difference in body fat measures after 8 weeks… 12 weeks… 12 weeks… or 13 weeks.


There are certainly other
benefits over regular walking, such as increased upper body muscle
bulk, muscular endurance, and strength (though not as much as
resistance band training), but to date, there’s no evidence
for a weight loss enhancing effect, which is why Nordic walking
didn’t cut my new book. But, just as we were going
to press this study was published: the first ever to combine
Nordic walking with diet, compared to the same dietary
program with regular walking. And, once again,
no significant difference in body weight or anything else. Now, there was a hint that
those in the pole group enjoyed it more, and in the end, exercise
only works if you do it. And, there may be other benefits. Nordic walking beat out regular walking in terms of reducing symptoms of
depression and improving sleep quality.


Perhaps this should not be surprising
given the greater exercise intensity of Nordic walking, even approaching
that of jogging at higher speeds. And that’s where I see
the role of walking poles— to fill the intensity gap between
people who are ready to graduate from walking but not yet ready for
more rigorous activities such as running. The only potential downsides
are the added expense and, reminded of Monty Python’s
“Ministry of silly walks” sketch, the indignity of looking a bit ridiculous.

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