MONDAY, May 21, 2012 — Grab your walking poles. They’re not just for long hikes anymore.

Using poles and moving your arms like you would while cross-country skiing, called Nordic walking, is an emerging fitness trend in Europe. “Nordic walking is a relatively new sport,” says Bernd Zimmermann, who founded the American Nordic Walking Association (ANWA) in 2004. “It was invented in Finland in 1997 and is now the fastest growing sport in the world.”

We can see why. Just by adding the walking poles (which come adjustable, semi-adjustable, or fixed-length), Zimmermann says, “you actively engage your upper body to turn walking into a total-body exercise that burns up to 40 percent more calories, tones your arms and upper body, and reduces stress on your knees and joints.”

New research presented today at the Heart Failure Congress 2012 offers a reason more of us should get in the habit — particularly people with heart failure.

For the study, Polish researchers looked at 12 healthy athletes and 12 men with heart failure. All performed two walking tests on level treadmills, one with poles and one without. Using the poles allowed the heart failure patients to safely amp up the intensity of their training and their cardio-respiratory responses such as oxygen consumption, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Aerobic training is good for people with heart failure. It improves their exercise capacity (which keeps them at a healthy weight) and quality of life, and reduces the number of heart-failure related hospitalizations, the researchers say in their report, but many find it difficult to work out. Nordic walking could be the solution.

Think about it: Walking with poles requires walkers to move their arms more than they would without them, which gets more muscles moving and makes them burn more calories without increasing distance. The poles also offer additional support — a particularly nice benefit for people worried about losing balance — and put less stress on the lower body.

Past research has established Nordic walking a viable, low-cost exercise option for post-heart attack patients or those with metabolic conditions such as diabetes. It’s a smart spin on walking for healthy people, too. If you love walking, you might love Nordic walking even more. All you have to do is get the poles.