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Nordic Walking : Walking back to happiness

When Julie Ratcliff, a GP practice nurse from Somerset, found a lump the size of an egg in her right breast at the beginning of 2010, she was still breast feeding her 13-month-old daughter. After a visit to her GP, Julie, now 55, was fast-tracked to Musgrove Hospital in Taunton, where she had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Although the cancer had also spread to her liver, lungs and lymph nodes, her treatment was a success.

Nordic Walking - Exercise to support the relief of mild lymphoedema - Amoena

Due to post-surgery complications, however, Julie had to take some time off work after her surgery: “Having my lymph nodes removed meant I had mild lymphoedema. My arm and upper back had started to swell and I had very limited mobility in my shoulder,” she says. “I wanted to find a form of exercise that might help with this, although I’d been shown how to use massage to improve lymph flow.” She also missed the social side of her job: “It was a lonely place, having breast cancer and being away from my colleagues.”

Looking for something that would help with her mobility but wanting to avoid the expense of joining a gym, Julie was intrigued by an advertisement for Nordic Walking. “I’d heard that it could be good for lymphoedema prevention and reduction, and I also saw it as something that would get me moving and get me outdoors,” she says.

“I hadn’t always been into fitness, but I liked the way the ad said that the instructors would tailor the sessions to meet your abilities, so you wouldn’t be expected to walk far or fast – just go at your own pace and be supported all the way.”

She enjoyed the taster course enormously and found that it had a positive effect on her lymphoedema after just a few sessions: “The action of swinging my arms and using the poles really helped, and the improvements have continued. I now don’t have to wear a sleeve. I have all the movement back in my arm and shoulder, and no more areas of swelling.”

After the taster course, unfortunately Julie couldn’t find any classes near to her home town but, determined to carry on, “I just bought a pair of poles and started Nordic Walking on my own.”

Stepping up

Nordic Walking was founded in the 1970s in Finland. “It was designed to help cross-country skiers to train in summer when there was no snow,” explains Julie. Nordic Walking uses lightweight poles with an angled tip for stability that can be replaced with blades depending on the terrain. “Using a heel-to-toe marching movement, you keep your arms low – near your pockets – and swing you shoulder and arm backwards, using the poles for propulsion. The result is that you can cover more ground with less effort. It’s great for cardio, helps with back problems and posture, bone density, shoulder and chest movement. It also improves your mood because you’re outside with a bunch of like-minded people.”

In spring 2023, Julie decided to look at becoming an instructor herself: “Because it helped me so much, I wanted to be able to share the benefits with other women.” She now teaches three Nordic Walking groups, from beginners to advanced, and describes herself as an addict. “For somebody who didn’t really like to exercise, I am now addicted to it. Just ask my family and they’ll tell you – it’s all I can talk about. It has inspired me to get out there. It’s not just about the fitness benefits either. It’s also a great social activity. “To other women considering it, I’d say come and give it a go. It’s easy to get into, easy on the joints and I don’t think you will be disappointed.”

Julie has been an Amoena customer since shortly after her surgery. “It was a joy to discover Amoena’s mastectomy bras after my surgery. It’s a difficult time: you’ve lost your breast, you’ve lost your hair – you feel like you’ve lost everything, so it’s nice to find something that gives you back your femininity.” Recently she has been using Amoena’s Contact self-adhesive breast form. “I really love wearing sports bras, particularly since taking up Nordic Walking, and Contact gives me a lot more options in the types of bra I can wear.”

There’s more about Nordic Walking on the British Nordic Walking website, where you can read up on the general health benefits and find specific studies related to lymphoedema.

Find out more about Julie’s Nordic Walking classes here.