I'll admit I was skeptical at first. I would see people walking along the paved bike path with their walking sticks swinging at their hips and wonder if they were lost. Did they they think they were trekking in the Swiss Alps? Then a fitness trainer friend set me straight. Walking poles aren't just for hiking, and they aren't just for the elderly or those who need extra help with their balance. Adding walking poles to your daily jaunt is an excellent way to boost your calorie burn, and they may even help prevent chronic pain with aging.

Walking poles, also known as Nordic walking poles or sticks, originated in Scandinavia. Their popularity spread across Europe, and they've slowly but steadily made the jump across the Atlantic. Some walkers love them because they offer extra stability. That's helpful for folks who are walking on uneven terrain or even those on paved paths who need more balance. But many walkers use poles as an easy way to turn their daily jaunts into full-body workouts.

Man with walking sticks in forest You probably associate walking sticks with hiking in an alpine forest, but they can be used a much wider variety of settings. (Photo: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock)

A study by Prevention magazine found that walking poles can increase calorie-burn by an average of 15-20 percent and as much as 50 percent when compared with regular walking.

As fitness trainer Carol Michaels of Carol Michaels Fitness explains it, walking with poles is a simple and effective exercise because it combines walking with an upper-body workout. "Because of this combination, pole walkers benefit from using the chest, triceps, biceps, shoulders and abdominals with the leg muscles." With each step and swing of the pole, you're doubling your ability to torch calories.

Another key benefit of using walking poles is that they may help to ward off chronic pain. In a study led by Dr. Donald Silverberg, a retired internal medicine and nephrology specialist at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center in Israel, 100 volunteers over the age of 60 with a history of chronic pain in their knees, hips or lower back were asked to try using walking poles for 12 weeks. At the end of the study period, nine of the participants had dropped out, but of the remaining 91 experienced remarkable improvements in their pain levels. Even better, all of the remaining participants were walking further each day than they had been without the sticks, yet they didn't report any increase in their exertion levels.

This could be because walking poles help you to maintain good posture during your workout. It could also be because they lessen the strain on joints.

No matter how they help, it's clear that walking poles offer an easy way to amp up the benefits of your workout while offering extra stability and a way to prevent or lessen chronic pain. "It’s low impact by nature, it’s fun to do, and it keeps you outdoors, making it an ideal form of exercise for anyone from out-of-season skiers to those recovering from injuries," says Michaels.

How to use walking poles

If you think this might be a good addition to your routine, here's a how-to video if you want to give walking poles a try:

You can find walking poles in many big-box sporting equipment stores as well as online. There are lots of features to choose from such as shock absorption, locking mechanisms, grip straps, removable tips (for walking on varied terrain), foldability, and adjustability. But the key is to find poles that are the right length. Your arms should be bent at 90 degrees when the poles touch the ground.

So the next time you go for a walk, be sure to grab those walking poles before you head out the door.