Walk this way – An exercise physiologists guide to walking!

You can tell a lot by how someone struts their stuff. You can tell their mood by the skip in their step and if you are really being observant, you can even spot potential dysfunction and injury. We walk every day, up to a recommended 10,000 steps. But do you know if you’re walking properly?

Let’s look at the movement patterns behind walking and find out what you can do to improve your gait.

We take walking for granted

It comes naturally to most of us, but there’s a lot happening behind the scenes when we walk. Our body is an integrated system and we can’t separate the human body and decide a joint or muscle group can work in isolation. To get a deeper understanding of the process of walking, I’m going to talk slings and how they enabled us to develop from quadruped beings into bipedal creatures.

Thanks to evolution and human adaptation, this transition has allowed us to carry out more complex movements and tasks and challenged the body to cope with different stresses and demands, like walking.

“Walking is a [hu]man’s best medicine.” – Hippocrates

It starts with your feet

Firstly, I want to address the foot as it plays a major role in walking. With 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments they are our foundation and “dysfunctional feet are like flat tyres”.

Most of us neglect our feet by spending more time confining them into shoe boxes, or as I like to call them, foot condoms. Our feet have thousands of nerve endings that provide important sensory feedback to our brain. If we constantly keep them covered and compressed, we reduce our connection with the ground through layers of padding. By doing this we are not only dulling messages and communication in our body but disconnecting part of our body from our mind. This can impact neural links, balance, mobility, strength and other joints up the chain.

Now, I’m not saying you should never wear shoes or go to work in bare feet. I’m merely saying it’s good to be conscious of how much time you spend squishing your toes in your shoes.

“When ‘cute’ shoes create deformed feet maybe it’s time to rethink how we view footwear” – The Foot Collective

Tips for protecting your feet:

1. Wear shoes less – Spend some time being barefoot and limit your time in uncomfortable footwear that are not shaped to your foot.

2. Improve your foot mobility – Counteract the time you restrict your feet and spend a few minutes each day completing exercises to help your foot mobility. Some ways to improve mobility include:

  • Grabbing a lacrosse ball and roll out the bottom of your foot
  • Kicking your shoes off and put toe spreaders on
  • “Wringing out your foot” by intertwining your fingers between your toes and mobilising with small movements.

walking

3. Try a balancing act – Stay on your feet and challenge your proprioception by practicing your balance as it helps to keep your feet stronger and more responsive. Your feet are the first ‘call to action’ when you need to keep your centre of mass.

Unsurprisingly, muscles play a big role

We have many muscle and connective tissue “slings” within our system. Each of these helps to facilitate dynamic movement and transfer force to make powerful actions. This would be a very long blog if I discussed them all (and I don’t want to lose you!) so I’m only going to discuss the Anterior Oblique Sling (AOS) and the Posterior Oblique Sling (POS).

The AOS.

[pectoralis, external and internal obliques, and opposite adductor]

The AOS crosses over our lumbo-pelvic hip complex, which as the name suggests, comprises of the lumbar spine, pelvic girdle and hip joint. It distributes force, load and maintains stability during movement, especially in our gait cycle.

“The primary function of this unit is to allow the transfer of forces safely in order to allow complex movement, without injury, and whilst facilitating efficient respiratory function.” – Vleeming and Jones

Basmajian’s study on the AOS showed that it provides harmony between our adductors and oblique muscles while walking. By providing this stability it contributes to our stance phase of walking, but it also allows efficient rotation of the pelvis which helps with swinging our leg through (swing phase) and optimal heel-strike in our gait mechanics.

He also concluded that as the speed of walking progresses into jogging and running, activation of this system is more prominent. So, the more we train this sling pattern to work consistently the more powerful, seamless and strong our movements and performance will be.

Exercises to connect your AOS:

1. Perform a Wood Chop exercise in different orientations (tall kneeling, half-kneeling, standing)
2. Slow the tempo and control your dead bugs
3. Complete some Turkish Get Ups

The POS.

[latissimus dorsi, interconnecting thoracolumbar fascia, and opposite gluteus maximus]

You can’t have one without the other. We are now upright beings, so the demand on our posterior chain has dramatically increased.

Our beautiful, big booties are there for a reason. They propel us forward with movement and walking (they’re not just for twerking!). The glutes have become the MVP and play a vital role in supporting functional control and support in the phases of our gait cycle.

The gluteus and opposite latissimus dorsi work together by lengthening and shortening, which then allows our arm to extend and opposite leg to drive forward. That’s why we naturally swing our arms when walking. The technical term for this is “reciprocal patterning”.

With any dysfunction in this sling pattern, compensatory tendencies occur that can then lead to injury and pain. If a muscle is weak and disconnected it puts strain on other areas along the sling.

Exercises to connect your POS:

1. Start in a quadruped position (on hands and knees) and perform a bird dog exercise
2. Incorporate rolling patterns in your program to ignite full body connection. They are a great restorative movement
3. Try a reverse lunge and low cable row

Walk your way

We started from the bottom, now we here; Efficient gait mechanics incorporates all the above to unify and create a sustainable pattern. Make sure your training programs encompass movements that work these slings specifically, so you can have a spring in your step.

If you’ve suffered an injury or simply need help to improve your gait, your local exercise physiologist can help! They will be able to prescribe exercises to improve your movement patterns and help you to walk more efficiently. To find an Accredited Exercise Physiologist near you, click here.

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Written by Deanna Niceski. Deanna is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Global Wellness Tracking.