Recovering from breast cancer with Nordic walking: Susan Bjork
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When Susan Bjork joined the Living Well With Cancer Nordic walking program at York Hospital in Wells, Maine, at the suggestion of her oncologist, she had no idea she would discover her all-time favorite physical activity.
“When I tried Nordic walking, I loved it from the first class,” says Susan, a 73-year-old retired paralegal, who had just completed her post-surgery physical therapy when she joined the class. “We were exercising outside in the fresh air, and I was learning something new. In regular indoor exercise classes, there’s the reminder that everyone there has breast cancer. But when you’re outside Nordic walking in nature the time goes so quickly, and it seems to be a more-normal environment for exercise.”
What is Nordic walking? It is an increasingly popular activity where walkers mimic the upper body motion of cross-country skiing with the help of specially designed poles. Unlike walking with hiking poles, there is a specific technique to learn: the arms swing forward and back like long pendulums, and the poles are used to propel the walker forward. Studies show that Nordic walking uses approximately 90 percent of the body’s muscles.
The medical and fitness communities are keen on the activity because of its many evidence-based benefits, says Diana Oliver, co-director at Urban Poling Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of Nordic walking poles.
“At last count, there were over 300 studies on Nordic walking and nine that looked specifically at its benefits for women with breast cancer,” says Ms. Oliver. “Years of research show that, compared to standard walking, exercising with Nordic walking poles strengthens the core and upper body, burns at least 20 percent more calories, increases range of motion at the neck and shoulders, and takes stress away from the lower body joints. It’s also a wonderful mood booster.”
Susan agrees that Nordic walking has had an impact on both her physical and mental health. “It makes me feel good about myself,” she says.
Elisa Fraser, MSPT, OCS, the physical therapist who oversees the York Hospital Living Well With Cancer Nordic walking program, is excited about the results she sees in her participants with breast cancer.
“Nordic walking assists with lymphatic drainage, increases shoulder range of motion, and improves overall strength and cardiovascular conditioning,” she says.
A small eight-week study that Ms. Fraser led with the Living Well With Cancer Nordic walking program, where participants practice Nordic walking for 60 minutes twice a week, demonstrated additional benefits: All participants showed improved static and dynamic balance. And the 11 percent of participants who initially scored at a high risk for falls scored at average risk or low risk for falls post-study.
“I’m sold on Nordic walking for my patients,” says Ms. Fraser, who has recently received funding for a Nordic walking program for people with chemotherapy-related peripheral neuropathy. “I just can’t say enough good things about it.”
Interested in trying Nordic walking? Consider these tips to get started:
1. Sign up for a lesson or series of lessons.
Having a good instructor is critical if you want to experience the full benefits, says Susan. “It’s really important to have someone show you the proper arm swing, how to position your poles, and how to stabilize with them on hills.” Get assistance from your physical therapist, or check your Nordic walking pole manufacturer’s website for instructor referrals and how-to videos.
2. Purchase good-quality poles.
The best Nordic walking poles give you the sense you’re driving a Mercedes while others feel more a Volkswagen, says Ms. Fraser, who prefers Urban Poling brand strapless poles.
“When we switched from poles with a glove system to strapless poles, patients were able to engage their core muscles more actively, and their posture was so much better,” she says. “With strapless handles I don’t need to do as much cueing to help patients engage the core since the handles essentially activate those muscles without their awareness. And because there’s no glove system, I don’t need to help people who have weak hands or peripheral neuropathy in and out of the equipment.”
3. Think safety.
Nordic walking poles telescope to a length appropriate for the user’s height and then are locked into place. “Choose poles that have a good locking system,” says Ms. Fraser. “We have had issues with some poles that gradually collapse during use.”