Saturday, October 23, 2010


Nordic Walking and sport

This particular article appeared previously in Nordic Walking News but I have re-published as this question may well be topical once again. Readers should be aware that this is very much a personal view. Some of the links are now out of date and certain Nordic Walking organisations may well have shifted their educational policy. However, I still stand by the thrust of what I have written.
Nordic Walking and sport

I pose two questions:

Question 1: Is Nordic Walking a sport?
Question 2: Is question one relevant?

My answer to the first is no! and my answer to the second is yes!

Nordic Walking expressed as a sport

Examination of a number of the Nordic Walking “establishment” websites reveals terminology such as “Nordic Walking belongs to a wider concept called Nordic Fitness Sports”(1) and “Nordic walking is primarily an endurance sport”(2). I have also encountered the terms “open-air leisure sport”, “wellness sport” and “health sport” during my research for this article. (my italics)

On the one hand, I suspect that organisations use the word sport in order to imbue the activity with a degree of charisma, a sense of allure and an association with athleticism. In much the same way, a sports car is seen as being more dynamic and attractive than a humble family hatchback (even though there is no gain in its function as a vehicle). I believe it is do with image, a matter of “spin”.

On the other hand, I suspect that the word sport is used as a convenient handle for virtually any activity that involves purposeful human movement. As such, it’s a collective noun which is used in a very laissez faire manner.

Whichever condition prevails, I believe that the use of the word, and the image it conjures, is detrimental to the further mass popularisation of Nordic Walking.

A categorical perspective

Without doubt, the concept of sport is hard to define and it is not my intention to stray far into that territory here. However, examination of some of the literature reveals a number of common characteristics of the enterprise known as sport: it is governed by rules, is practised formally and, most importantly, is competitive. Intrinsically, Nordic Walking does not fit any of these criteria.

Of course, Nordic Walking, as with any other form of human propulsion, can be practised in a “sporting context” and thus becomes sport owing to context and intent. A similar thing happens with running. Running, in itself, is not a sport. It can be said that there is a continuum, where at one end running is simply a means of human locomotion whilst at the other end, where running takes place competitively on an athletics track, it takes on the mantel of sport. (Interestingly, there are some sociologists who maintain that athletics is distinct from sport, but we shall not enter that labyrinth here!)

If not a sport, then what……?

By way of a definition, I would contend that Nordic Walking is a form of active recreation – specifically, a form of exercise. It requires no further elaboration.

But, surely, it’s just a harmless word?

Above I suggested that the use of the word sport, with its associations of “high performance”, may hamper progress of the widespread adoption of Nordic Walking, especially in the quest to reach the least active. I draw many of my conclusions from guidance and data obtained from various reports published by the UK government agency, Sport England . (3) Whilst the statistics pertain only to England (not the whole of the UK) I think that it is reasonable to suggest that the trend illustrated applies to most industrialised nations.

As part of the “Active People Survey”(4) conducted in 2005/06 it was recorded that only 21 % of the adult population aged 16 and over (8.5 million) take part regularly in sport and active recreation. Of course, we would more than welcome this segment to take part in Nordic Walking, but from a purely national health perspective these people are already part of the solution and not part of the problem.

28.4% of adults (11.5 million) have built some exercise into their lives, but accept could do more.

However, most critically 50.6% of adults (20.6 million) do not regularly take part in any moderate intensity sport or active recreation. Sport England points out that many health care professionals take the view that the very word “sport” and all its associations may be a deterrent to many in this category.(5)

Furthermore, another feature of the UK (and probably most other developed nations) is its ageing population. It is estimated that by 2020 almost half of the UK population will be over 50 years old. Though chronologically older, attitudinally many older people “act young”. (Be mindful that Mick Jagger recently celebrated his 65th birthday!) The implications for participation in physical activity for this group are enormous. As part of its policy, Sport England expressly recommends avoiding using the word “sport” in connection with this particular segment.(6)

Whilst many Nordic Walking organisations claim that the activity is “for everyone”, they then proceed to put up barriers to those who would benefit most from taking part. Of course, whilst the removal of those barriers will not in itself open the flood gates to mass participation, I do believe it’s a necessary precondition.

At sport level

The INWA organises its teaching procedure around three “levels”, namely health, fitness and sport. (7) Furthermore, I have also seen an elaboration of this by a member association which incorporated the concept of “progression” between these levels. The implication that could be inferred here is that the individual moves from the “mere” health level, via “fitness” to eventually come to the excellence of “sport”. Whilst this may not be the intention behind this concept I suggest that many will interpret it as being so.

I take the view that the bedrock of Nordic Walking (in any of its guises) needs to be “functional fitness”. This can be defined as a common sense approach to exercise designed to foster and sustain lifelong wellness and to prolong physical independence.

Of course, everyone must begin by learning the basics of their chosen technique(s) simply to provide the tools of the trade. However, functional fitness does not need to be broken down into a hierarchy.

Needless to say, any individual who cultivates a high performance mindset and wishes to go beyond their “optimum” of functional fitness is free to do so. By the same token, any individual who wishes to use Nordic Walking as a means of training for a particular sport is also free to do so and is able to adopt some highly demanding procedures (Nordic Walking on hills, interval techniques, double poling, running with poles etc.). However, these developments are not part of some “essential continuum” but are simply adaptations or extensions of the core activity.

What about Volkssport?

Paradoxically, there is one particular instance where the usual associations inherent in sport are substantially absent, and that is Volkssport, or Peoples’ Sport. This concept, which has become popular in the US, embodies the concept of popular, non-competitive, but structured fitness activity. Thus far, the recognised disciplines include walking, swimming, cycling and Nordic skiing, all done in a friendly and enjoyable context. Nordic Walking could fit this practise, and indeed, many of the events held in Germany follow these lines.


Whilst I have urged dispensing with sporting allusions, Nordic Walking should not, however, be portrayed exclusively as a modality for the sedentary or the ageing population. This may only serve to defeat the “object of the exercise” by creating yet another barrier, only this time to those who are already fit.

As a form of accessible and inclusive recreational activity, Nordic Walking can be readily adapted to meet the needs of everyone, regardless of age, ability, social group, ethnicity or fitness level. In upholding as its core characteristic the concept of functional fitness, the enterprise can provide an enduring and sustainable exercise methodology.


(1) The INWA website at
(2) The website of the German Nordic Walking Union at
(3) Sport England is the central government agency in the UK responsible for advising, investment and the promotion of community sport to create an active nation.
(4) The “Active People Survey” was carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Sport England in 2005/06 and is claimed to be the largest such survey ever undertaken.
(5) From the Sport England report “Best Value through sport – The value of sport to the health of the nation”.
(6) From the Sport England publication “Understanding participation in Sport: What determines participation among recently retired people.
(7) The INWA website

Malcolm Jarvis

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