Evidence-Based Use of Walking Poles for Balance
Research indicates positive impacts of using walking poles for health and exercise as well as a rehabilitation tool for adults who need more stability, balance and confidence when walking outside the home. Older adults using poles tend to walk more frequently and longer.
Benefits of using walking poles:
- Improved stability, mobility, and posture.
- Increased gait stability.
- Increased core strength.
- Increased coordination.
- 20-46% more calories expended compared to regular walking.
- Less neck and shoulder symptoms.
- Increased mobility of the upper body.
- Reduced impact on knee and hip joints.
- Enhanced fall prevention.
- Increased gait speed increased compared to walking—in one study, gait speed was
increased by 106%.
- Both left and right sides engaged — this bilateral and rhythmical movement is particularly
useful for those recovering from a stroke.
Ordinary walking works only the leg muscles. Pole walking engages 90% of muscles. Core
muscles contract 1,800 times and lateral muscles 900 times per mile of urban poling. Novices
are cautioned to start off using the poles to go only 30% of maximum walking tolerance.
Features of ACTIVATOR® poles
Based on the research and clinical observations of clients using walking poles as well as input from physiotherapists and occupational therapists, a BC occupational therapist developed poles with a number of safety and effectiveness features not included in other Nordic poles. These include:
- Large ergonomic left and right handles to keep the wrists in a loose and neutral position to reduce joint strain. The handles provide greater comfort, especially for those with arthritis or repetitive strain injuries.
- Strapless handles to reduce the risk of injury in the event of a fall or stumble. Most other Nordic walking poles come with a strap. Research indicates that most Nordic walking injuries are related to when, in the event of a fall, the user is attached to the handle.
- Three anti-vibration features to minimize vibrational stress.
- Wide, bell-shaped rubber tip to add to stability and balance when walking indoors or on pavement.
- Steel-carbide tips to provide more traction when walking on uneven terrain, such as dirt trails, grass, sand, or gravel.
- Button-lock system to allow greater weight bearing — up to 200 pounds per pole — for those needing additional upright support.
- Telescoping — poles can be adjusted for users up to 6’ in height and are collapsible for storage, travel, and shopping.
The basic ACTIVATOR® technique is easier to learn compared with the regular Nordic walking technique. To promote stability, the sturdy ACTIVATOR® poles are used with the following four-step technique:
- Make sure that the right and left poles are in the correct hands — there is an indicator at the top of each handle.
- Stand up straight, keeping elbows at a 90° angle. Ensure poles are always vertical. Keep elbows bent the entire time while walking.
- Step forward with the poles in the same manner as you walk. Put the left leg and right arm forward, then vice versa. Do not keep arms static; move them (with a bent elbow) forward and back.
- Do not grip the handle tightly. Push down on the base of the handle to increase stability and balance.
For many, ACTIVATOR® poles are preferable to using a cane or walker. Walker users assume a static pose and have limited range of motion. Core muscles relax and balance indicators get lazy. Conversely, poling promotes a more normal gait pattern. Pole users are forced to bear weight evenly on both sides. Posture improves as confidence grows. And as posture becomes more upright, less shuffling occurs. The heel/toe gait pattern used with the ACTIVATOR® technique minimizes tripping over minor obstacles because the feet are picked up more instead of just shuffling along.
Pushing down with the poles while walking increases stability and balance. Pushing down also offloads about 25% of the pressure on the hips and knees.
Tips for using ACTIVATOR® poles
- ACTIVATOR® poles should not be used in icy or slippery conditions and are not designed for use on stairs.
- The challenge of carrying a bag while using the poles can be overcome by using a backpack or cross-body bag.
- While grocery shopping, collapse the poles.
- It is very important to talk to your doctor or therapist before considering using ACTIVATOR® poles if you are: currently using a cane or walker; have any medical condition which affects your balance, stability, grip strength, vision, depth judgement or co-ordination; or if you are currently recovering from injury or surgery.
Joint pain in the hands may be a limitation to using ACTIVATOR® poles, particularly for those with significant arthritis in their hands. Being mindful of maintaining a loose grip and pressing down with your body, rather than your hands, however, may alleviate pain. Listen to your body — poling may not be suitable for you.
Shintani, M. Evidence-based use of walking poles. Talk presented to Balance & Dizziness Canada. 2014.
Page updated August, 2019.