Nordic walking beats interval training for better heart function, study finds

This low-impact, full-body workout from Finland can be done at different levels of intensity. It incorporates the use of poles specifically designed to work in opposition to your legs, meaning your left arm and right foot work in tandem, and your right arm and left foot. Planting and pushing sticks helps you move forward, and the system is especially useful when going up or down hills.
Patients with coronary artery disease who participated in Nordic walking had a greater increase in their functional capacity, or ability to perform daily activities, compared to those who performed high-intensity interval training or a continuous training at a moderate to vigorous level, according to a recent study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.

Few studies have looked at the effects of Nordic walking on cardiac rehabilitation patients, but other forms of exercise, namely HIIT workouts, have been studied extensively, said lead author Dr. Reed, director of exercise physiology and cardiovascular health at the University of Ottawa. Institute in Canada. No other studies have directly compared the above three exercise regimens.

“Our research showing the superior benefits of Nordic walking on functional ability highlights an alternative exercise option that requires minimal cost and equipment to improve physical and mental health,” she said.

Total body movement

Nordic walking exercises 80-90% of your muscles when done correctly, according to the American Nordic Walking Association, while walking and running only recruits 40%. Additional shoulder, chest, and arm muscles used are the deltoids, pecs, upper abs, forearm flexors, subscapularis, triceps, and external obliques. What’s more, using those extra muscles leads to a 20% increase in calories burned compared to regular walking, according to a study published in the journal Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.

During Reed’s study, researchers had 130 patients in a 12-week training program performing either 60 minutes of Nordic walking on an indoor track; 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous continuous training (eg cycling or rowing); or a 45-minute HIIT workout. At the end of the training program, and again after a 14-week post-diet observation period, participants took two six-minute walk tests to measure functional capacity.

All exercise programs helped relieve patients’ depression and improve their quality of life, but functional capacity was highest after Nordic walking, the researchers found. The walkers had a 19% increase in functional capacity compared to 13% for those who did the HIIT workouts and 12% for those who did the moderate to vigorous continuous training.

“The six-minute walk test to measure functional ability is an evidence-based and generally reproducible test,” said physician Dr. Jonathan H. Whiteson, associate professor of rehabilitation and medicine at NYU Langone Health in New York. He did not participate in the study.

“However, as a walking test to measure improvements from different exercise regimens, it is important to recognize that training is task-specific, and so it is not so surprising that the walking intervention , rather than the other two exercise interventions that did not focus solely on walking, produced the greatest increase.”

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A more objective measure of aerobic training is a cardiopulmonary exercise test, or metabolic stress test, which can measure fitness levels through metabolic analysis, said Whiteson, who is also the medical director of the cardiac rehabilitation at NYU Langone Health. “The use of CPET testing would have improved the results of this study. That being said, all modalities improved functional capacity, and that is the goal of a cardiac rehabilitation program, as it correlates well with a reduced risk of future cardiac events.”

The fact that Nordic walking is primarily a walking exercise and the other training programs included a variety of aerobic exercises may certainly be why it came out number 1 in the walk test, Reed acknowledged. Using poles while walking can improve speed and postural control, and increase stride length.

Either way, Whiteson had a caveat: To achieve an increase in functional ability, Nordic walking must be done vigorously, and it requires coordination and balance, he said. Thus, it may not be a good choice for everyone.

Building on the study, his team is about to start a clinical trial that will explore the effects of combining different types of exercise on patients with cardiovascular disease, such as combining HIIT workouts with Nordic’s walk.

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The positive results of the study also sparked the team’s interest in further exploring the potential benefits of Nordic walking on other health measures, such as upper and lower body strength, and indicators cardiovascular health such as blood sugar and lipids. Positive results may indicate its use for people with other conditions, such as obesity and diabetes.

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In the United States, only 20 to 30 percent of patients who qualify and can benefit from cardiac rehabilitation are referred and participate, Whiteson said. This lack of active rehab participants makes research like Reed’s important because it points to another exercise modality they can use — and very convenient because it can be done outside of a gym. “It also helps remind healthcare providers and patients that cardiac rehabilitation is an essential part of their recovery regimen and their future health and well-being.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the study, according to Reed and Whiteson, is that everyone can benefit from exercise. “There’s no magic pill for health, but exercise is medicine that targets multiple health issues simultaneously,” Reed said. “When it comes to physical activity, I like to say, ‘Some is better than none, and more is better than some.'”

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