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The Benefits of Walking Sticks

Walking sticks are common walking companions to people of all shapes, ages and sizes, regardless of the type of walking, hiking or the weather. Anything from a simple afternoon stroll to a rigorous multi-day hike through the woods of northern Ontario can be aided by a walking stick. Walking sticks can range from a simple stick made from a tree branch you randomly pick up to specialized, ergonomic sticks purchased at high prices from outdoor-gear stores.

Regardless of the type of walking stick you use, there are several ways they can help you.

#1. History and Function

Walking sticks (also called hiking poles) are common in Europe, especially in Switzerland and Austria, where you'll often see older adults moving briskly over alpine hillsides, walking sticks firmly in hand. Historically they date back to the earliest hominids, and even some modern apes use sticks both for walking, but also as tools and weapons.

Walking sticks are now catching on in North America, too, as they are quite useful and provide more of a workout than you would get otherwise. The sticks help to support your knees and back when you're hiking or walking. If you have joint or knee problems, walking sticks can help by distributing your weight more evenly and giving you more stability. They also make uphill climbs easier and improve your hiking form by helping to keep your momentum forward, with your chest and arms out in front. You'll burn 20 to 25% more calories per walk as a result of putting your upper body muscles to work with the use of a stick.

#2. Improved Upper-Body Workout

Using a walking stick requires lifting the stick, placing it ahead of you and helping support your body's weight with your arms as you move. Over the course of a long walk, this can be a good workout for your arms and shoulders, helping you burn more calories as you exercise. You shouldn't find yourself exhausted while using a walking stick, but the Mayo Clinic says the stick will increase the intensity of your workout.

For increased intensity you can even get a heavier walking stick, something with a bit more heft (almost like a caveman's club). Don't forget to switch arms regularly.

#3. Back and Joint Health

Walking sticks help redistribute your body's weight. Instead of all your weight coming down on your back, hips and knees, a walking stick displaces some of your weight from your back and lower body and supports it through your arms and the stick itself. This can reduce wear and tear on your joints and muscles, which can help people with arthritis or back problems. Walking poles also foster proper posture as you use them, particularly in your upper back. Proper posture helps distribute weight evenly and safely, reducing your risk of injury and improving your back health.

#4. Improved Stability and Balance

When you walk over trails or other uneven surfaces, various obstacles or objects can make it difficult to maintain your balance, such as when you are going uphill, walking on soft or loose dirt, or stepping on rocks as you walk. Walking sticks help stabilize your body and reduce your risk of falling or slipping. The sticks also assist on hills by providing stability, especially as walkers become fatigued and their muscle strength and stability becomes less reliable.

#5. Could walking poles help me get more out of my daily walk?

Answer from Edward R. Laskowski, M.D.

Walking poles work your arms, shoulders, chest and upper back muscles through a functional range of motion as you walk — which can help you turn your daily walk into a full-body workout. This activity is sometimes called Nordic Walking.

Most walking poles have rubber tips that grab the pavement and wrist straps that secure the poles to your arms. With one walking pole in each hand, you grip the handles and push off with each stride. Sturdier walking poles designed for hiking are known as hiking or trekking poles.

Consider the benefits of walking poles:
  1. The arm movement associated with walking poles adds intensity to your aerobic workout, which helps you burn more calories.
  2. Walking poles improve balance and stability.
  3. Walking poles help you maintain proper posture, especially in the upper back, and may help to strengthen upper back muscles.
  4. Walking poles take some of the load off your lower back, hips and knees, which may be helpful if you have arthritis or back problems.
Walking poles in various fixed or adjustable lengths are available online and in many sporting goods stores.

#6. Which is better? Two walking sticks or One?

Should you use two walking sticks (aka trekking poles), or just one?. It boils down to what is your personal preference.

Or more specifically, what feels right for you when walking on the trail.

Theoretically, two poles was the best thing to do because it will provide the best workout. But if it doesn't feel right for you then don't worry about it. You're still getting more of a workout by having one walking stick and switching arms regularly so the workout is evenly distributed. For some people two poles just doesn't feel right. You feel unbalanced and/or can't get a good rhythm.

Not everyone will have the same problems with two walking sticks, so it doesn't hurt to try and just see how well it works. You might even try using only one aluminum pole and one wooden staff, when (non-snow) trekking or hiking. See whether you prefer wood or aluminum, one stick or two, both aluminum and wood at the same time.

As long as the end result is the same (extra exercise, better posture, less backpain) then you're succeeded.

Experiment. Do what's comfortable.

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