November 23

Are There Benefits of Pole Walking for Weight Loss?


Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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 percent 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 even 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 hardwired 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 if it becomes a stable lifelong habit. Exercise is really 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!

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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 percent longer. This was chalked up to “attentional distraction”––the music may have helped them keep their mind off of the feelings of fatigue. If that’s the case, maybe listening to a podcast or audio book might have a similar effect.

One way to up your walking game is with walking poles. So-called Nordic walking, also known as exerstriding 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 percent 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, is: Does that actually 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 make the cut for 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.

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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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