My friend and mentor Dr. Perry Nickleston likes to say that walking is the hardest thing your body can do.
Whether you spend your days moving from couch to subway (or car) to chair to subway (or car) to couch again, or you’re someone who regularly clocks in enough mileage to hatch several rare Pokemon a week, walking is a daily and essential part of our lives. As discussed in previous posts, many aspects of living in urban industrialized societies cause muscular imbalances, which leads to dysfunctional movement patterns--most of which center around the gait. When we don’t have the ideal balance of strength and flexibility, simple things like stepping off a curb have the potential to cause serious injury. The day to day wear on already overused muscles and stressed out joints is akin to layers of dirt and grime that accumulate on your windowsill: over time, things only get uglier.
So before you attempt fancy things like Iron Mans and mixed martial arts, or even after you’ve started, it is absolutely imperative that you improve your walking form.
What is walking? Well, it is primarily a single legged exercise that requires the coordination of the entire body. It is also an exercise that exists within the transverse plane--which means rotation is involved. When the right foot takes a step, the left shoulder gently sways forward while the right leg flexes, and the right shoulder gently sways backward while the left leg extends. When the left foot takes a step, the right shoulder gently sways forward while the left leg flexes, and the left shoulder gently sways backward while the right leg extends. Take a moment to picture this in your head.
A dysfunctional gait can range from walking with very little upper body movement to hyperextended legs during the planting phase, to an excessively arched lower back, to many other signs that I won’t list right now, (but you can take a look at your own gait and probably notice a few things I haven’t mentioned). Whenever dysfunctions occur, the question has to be, where is the weakness? Your body will only choose to lock up certain parts when it senses instability in other crucial regions. Hence, when people experience very limited ankle range of motion, or really stiff shoulders, it is always a result of the body trying to make up for these weaker areas. Conditions like plantar fasciitis and runner’s knee are just your body’s way of telling you there’s a problem. While chronic pain and stiffness can be frustrating, I say, be forgiving of your body and recognize that it is just making sure that even if your glutes barely function, you can still escape that saber toothed tiger that may be lurking behind the U-Haul across the street.
Start with strengthening your hips--both the front and the back. Perform exercises that require the lower abdominals and the psoas muscles to work together, such as many exercises in Pilates. Become really good at engaging and utilizing your glute muscles, such as in a lunge, a deep squat, or a glute bridge.
Next, get rid of all ill-fitting footwear with cushy soles and tight toeboxes. No exceptions. Sometimes, for women, I understand that high heels can feel like a must, but in those cases, make sure to get a shoe that has a wide and rounded toebox, and to limit the time spent in them. Daily walking should always be in something that allows your toes to wiggle and your feet to be completely flat to the ground. *Side Note: Yes, New Balance Minimus with their 4mm heel height is still OK.
While you’re liberating your feet, make sure they’re also getting stronger by always lifting up your arches and allowing your big toe to splay out. Feet and ankles cannot assist you in balance if they are weak and are always either turned outward or inward. They must point forward and align with your knees. *Side Note: People who have hip deformities will need to point their feet based on where their knee is facing.
Finally, get some core strength. That doesn’t mean just abs either. We have many muscles in our trunk, including ones that extend the spine, the obliques, and the deep abdominals. These guys all need to have the strength to hold the upper part of your skeleton up. Do some planks, some Pilates, or even try keeping your abs tight when you’re opening a heavy door! Think of it this way: can a weak hub keep its spokes together?