As the consequences of prolonged sitting have become more well known, people have made a real conscious effort to incorporate walking throughout their day. For some, it’s making time to walk during lunch time. For others, it’s making sure to take at least 10,000 steps per day.
However, despite our good intentions many of us are simply walking the wrong way. Not the wrong way as in the wrong direction, but rather with the wrong technique.
Since the majority of our day has shifted to more and more sitting at work and home, we’ve lost touch with the proper way to walk. What that means is that we aren’t benefiting from our walks as much as we think we are.
So what are the benefits that we’re missing from walking improperly? What is the proper way to walk? And what are the unnecessary costs to our body when we don’t walk properly?
The Cost of Walking Improperly
Walking is generally considered one of the best forms of exercise. When all the moving parts are working properly, our body is like a well-oiled machine. But when some of the parts aren’t moving as they are designed to, it can lead to the breakdown of overcompensating areas of our body.
For instance, if you’ve ever experienced symptoms in your low back, knee, or feet after a walk you may have thought that there was something wrong with your body. However, it may actually have done more to do with how you walked! That’s why it’s important to walk with the proper technique.
Simply walking for the sake of walking isn’t good enough. If you’re going to allocate the time for this activity you might as well know the proper way of walking. After all, you’ll be doing this the rest of your life!
The Reasons Why We Don’t Walk Properly
Before we review the benefits of walking correctly, we should quickly cover the reasons why we don’t walk properly in the first place.
1. We don’t walk regularly enough or long enough
Before the modern era, walking was our only mode of transportation. That means we had a lot of practice with it, for long distances and for long periods of time. Today we rely more heavily on other modes of transportation that don’t involve our legs (unless you believe pressing on the gas pedal is using your legs).
Walking is no longer used to get from point A to B. Instead it’s something we add as a supplement to our exercise routines. This lost practice has certainly contributed to the lost art of proper walking.
2. Sitting makes it difficult to walk
It’s obvious that you can’t walk while you’re sitting. What’s not so obvious, however, is how sitting creates gradual changes to your body that makes walking more difficult to perform well. One of the muscle groups that is affected by long periods of sitting are the hip flexors. Specifically, these muscles are shortened by sitting.
When the hip flexors are short it creates an anterior pelvic tilt in our body, which makes it difficult to stand upright or to take a normal stride. To compensate we either arch our spines excessively, hunch over, or shuffle our feet when walking. These changes to the body are certainly contributors to improper walking.
3. We walk on auto-pilot
When was the last time you paid attention to your walk? While it is more common to focus on form and technique with more skilled activities, such as golf or tennis, we seldom are aware of our bodies when we are walking. We set our bodies on auto-pilot when walking and believe that our legs will do what they are supposed to do.
But walking, like any other physical activity, requires the proper sequencing of muscles to make it elegant and efficient. This may explain why some people move effortlessly during their walks, while others look less coordinated and fatigue more quickly.
The Benefits of Walking Properly
The reason why proper walking is so important in our lives is not only its contribution to the health of our cardiovascular system, but also what it does to our body physically.
While many of the activities that we perform on a regular basis close the front of our hips, walking is one of the few activities that we do that opens the front of our hips. This opening motion is what is referred to as hip extension.
The benefits of hip extension with proper walking are as follows:
1. It stretches your hip flexors. Those muscles that are shortened with sitting are actually stretched when you walk correctly. This allows you to stand upright while walking without the need to hunch over or stand with an anterior pelvic tilt.
2. It activates your glutes. These are the largest muscles in the body but are often weak and undertrained. The contribution of these muscles in walking takes a huge load off of your legs and low back.
3. It increases your stride length. For any given distance an increase in stride length improves the efficiency of your walks and helps to reduce fatigue. A shorter stride results in more of a shuffled walk.
4. It improves your balance. The larger stride makes you spend more time on each leg helping you restore and maintain your balance, which is often lost gradually over time.
The Steps to Walk Properly
Walking is divided into two phases: swing phase and stance phase.
The swing phase of walking is when the foot is off the ground. It begins when the foot leaves the ground and ends just prior to the foot making contact with the ground again.
1. Take a normal size step by drawing your right thigh forward. It’s best to lead with your thigh rather than your foot.
2. Aim to land on your heel but don’t reach with it.
The stance phase is the portion of walking when the foot is on the ground. It begins when the heel makes initial contact with the ground and ends just prior to the lifting of the foot off the ground.
3. When your right heel hits the ground gradually press your right thigh back with the intent of keeping your heel down longer than you normally would. Don't press back with your knee and make sure your right foot is facing forwards.
4. As your right heel begins to lift off the ground make sure that the foot continues to face forward. Don't let it turn inwards or outwards during the lift.
5. Stay upright. Think about stacking your head over your shoulders and your shoulders over your hips but don't let your low back arch excessively.
6. Your torso should face forwards. Don't let it turn or twist throughout your walk. Make an effort to keep your pelvis and shoulders facing forwards but avoid bracing with your abdominals.
7. Let your arms swing naturally.
How does your walk compare to these instructions? Share your comment below.
Photo credit: Clem Onojeghuo
Amanda Geiger, PT and Paul Mukai, PT
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