The use of trekking poles while walking has been around for decades, having originated in Finland as a way for skiers to maintain fitness off season. Since then, pole walking has been capitalized and expanded upon as the health benefits of this total body workout have been recognized, and in recent years has gained in popularity in the US. But what physical affects would the use of trekking poles have on older community ambulators? This is the question that Meridee Danks, DPT, NCS, an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of North Dakota, and colleagues sought to answer. Their resulting poster, Effects of Pole Walking on Older Adults Following Six Weeks of Training, was presented at the 2020 APTA Combined Sections Meeting held in Denver, CO, February 12–15, 2020.
A cohort of 3 men and 8 women with a mean age of 64.3 years participated in the study, with 100% compliance. They were fit with walking poles and provided instructions on their use. The group met twice a week for 6 weeks to go for walks, ambulating at self-selected speeds. If a participant was unable to attend the group walk session, he or she performed walking on their own.
Results were measured using the Senior Fitness Test and undergoing gait analysis using the GAITRite walkway. While the sample size was small, the results are promising. According to the pre- and post-results of the Senior Fitness Test, of the 8 measures applied, significant improvements were seen in 5: 30-second chair stand test (pre, 15.73 ± 5.55; post, 17.55 ± 6.12), body weight (pre, 187.12 ± 40.03; post, 184.74 ± 40.13), 2-minute step test (pre, 101.00 ± 19.15; post, 112.64 ± 20.26), heart rate post 2-minute step test (pre, 92.70 ± 11.28; post, 84.60 ± 12.18), and 8-foot up and go (pre, 5.51 ± 0.58; post, 5.26 ± 0.69). Regarding the gait measures, 4 of the 5 showed significant improvements: right stride length normal pace, in centimeters (pre, 139.87 ± 12.59; post, 145.21 ± 8025); normal pace gait velocity without poles, centimeters per second (pre, 138.65 ± 11.80; post, 147.83 ± 8.6); normal cadence without poles, steps per minute (pre, 119.16 ± 9.97; post, 122.45 ± 8.13); and post normal pace gait velocity, centimeters per second (without poles, 147.83 ± 8.64; with poles, 160.44 ± 12.76).
Additionally, 7 of the participants reported postural improvements with the poles and all provided positive feedback. Postural improvement was largely attributed to pole fitment, according to Danks. Proper pole height/fitment is based on the user holding the pole handle with the arm bent at a 90-degree angle; this has the benefit of placing the user in a more upright postural stance. Ten of the 11 participants indicated they would continue pole walking after the study completion.
Based on the results, it appears in healthy older adults, pole walking can improve gait, balance, posture, and endurance. Trekking poles are readily available, affordable, and a motivating way to expand upon fitness and posture benefits of walking in older community-dwelling adults. Older adults see the trekking poles as a “sport” fitness device versus a medical device (cane or walker) which they perceive makes them look old.