Written by Jessica Norris — Fact checked by Catherine Carver, MPH
The heart is an organ that is essential to life since it pumps the needed blood, oxygen, and nutrients throughout the body. The heart can experience many problems that impact its ability to function. One such problem is coronary artery disease. Researchers are constantly working to understand how best to improve the health of people with coronary artery disease.
A study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology examined the impact of different types of exercise among participants with coronary artery disease. The authors found that all the types of exercise they studied were beneficial but that Nordic walking provided the most significant benefit.
Physical activity is an essential component of health, including cardiovascular health. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, explained in a recent blog post the following:
Physical activity is fundamental to overall health and well-being, yet woefully neglected in most of our daily lives. Along with maintaining good nutrition and emotional health, incorporating regular physical activity can help to prevent multiple chronic diseases and improve the odds of better outcomes should you become ill from various conditions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that “Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease in the United States.” CAD is when plaque builds up and clogs the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart.
Sometimes, one of the first indicators of CAD is when someone has a heart attack. After experiencing a heart attack, someone can work with medical professionals through cardiac rehabilitation. Cardiac rehabilitation often involves elements of physical activity to help improve heart health.
Generally, the treatment for CAD can involve practicing a heart-healthy lifestyle, including physical activity. Other elements involved in treating CAD may include weight and stress management, eating a heart-healthy diet, and quitting smoking. Experts are still working to understand what types of exercise are most beneficial in the short and long term.
Nordic walking vs. HIIT and MICT
The study in question involved 130 participants with CAD who had already been referred to a cardiovascular rehabilitation (CR) program. Participants completed a 12-week exercise program. Researchers then did follow-up over 14 weeks. Participants were involved in one of three different types of exercise programs:
- high intensity interval training (HIIT)
- moderate-to-vigorous intensity continuous training (MICT)
- Nordic walking
Dr. Chip Lavie, who led the paper’s accompanying editorial, explained the differences between these types of exercises to MNT:
Nordic Walking is an enhanced form of walking exercise that uses specifically designed poles to further engage both the upper and lower body muscles. Moderate to vigorous intensity continuous training (MICT) is regular, sustained walking at moderate to high exercise heart rates without the use of the poles. High-Intensity interval training (HIIT) is exercise such as very fast walking without the use of the poles for a few minutes at very high heart rates and then a recovery at a slow heart rate repeated several times.
Researchers evaluated participants’ functional capacity, which has to do with a person’s maximum effort they can put into physical activity. But researchers went one step further and looked at how these different types of exercise impacted the quality of life and symptoms of depression.
The study’s results found that all the exercise interventions positively impacted all three areas: functional capacity, quality of life, and symptoms of depression. However, those in the Nordic walking group experienced the most benefit because Nordic walking increased functional capacity the most.
The study authors noted that previous research has often focused on more of the immediate results of cardiovascular rehabilitation. However, their study had a longer follow-up time, allowing even greater data collection.
The study did have several limitations. First, they note that their participants maintained physical activity levels after the initial 12-week time of scheduled exercise programs. But other data has shown that physical activity levels can decrease for people with CAD after completing cardiovascular rehabilitation. So, this study’s authors conclude that future research should look more into the prolonged benefits of different types of exercise.
Second, the same center recruited all participants. Finally, the study only included a small number of females, so they cannot generalize the results. Overall, the results demonstrate the importance of physical activity on heart health. And more people with CAD may incorporate Nordic walking as an excellent exercise option.
Dr. Lavie noted the following to MNT:
The addition of Nordic poles to moderate to vigorous-intensity walking is a simple, accessible option to enhance improvements in walking capacity, increase energy expenditure, engage upper body musculature, and improve other functional parameters such as posture, gait, and balance all that could improve walking speed.