I’m going to describe two different people walking, visualize them, and then tell me (feel free to yell out the answer at your computer!) who is younger.
Person 1: head forward, rounded shoulders, and eyes to the ground, Person 1 takes tiny shuffling steps. You hear his feet scraping against the ground with each step, as he doesn’t have the balance, nor the movement in his ankles/feet, to suspend himself on one leg as the other swings forward. Much of his body is rigid as he goes along in this controlled fall forward.
Person 2: Person 2’s head is lifted and you can see the full length of her spine and power from her core. She moves as though propelling herself through space. There is movement through her hips, knees, ankles, and feet. You notice a buoyancy and confidence to her stride as she freely swings her arms and finds the moments of balance as she transfers her weight effortlessly from one foot to the other.
If your answer is the infamous YTU “It depends,” you are correct! While Person 1 is what we might visualize as the typical and eventual image as we age, it doesn’t have to be that way! Continuing, or returning to strong biomechanics of walking is not merely a display of your physical vitality; walking (often and well) can help to offset joint degeneration, breaking hips, circulation problems, mental decline, energy loss, and low moods, all of which we usually associate with aging. In this blog we’ll explore some of the physical and mental benefits of walking, and one aspect of what is needed for proper gait biomechanics.
The most obvious physical benefit to walking is the strengthening of your entire body. Swinging your arms and the cross-crawl pattern (opposite arm and leg move at the same time) helps to tone your arms and core muscles with each step. As you can see with the gait pattern in the first image the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, plantar flexors, intrinsic feet muscles, and more are all activated through walking. The joints, specifically the cartilage, are “fed” through movement, as synovial fluid (joint nutrition) and oxygen are pumped through the joint through the positive compression that comes with walking. When we don’t move enough it’s almost like starving our joints, and you know how cranky you get when you’re hungry? Well your joints do too.
Perhaps less obvious are the profound effects of walking on bone health and circulation. Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston found in their study of post-menopausal women, that 30 minutes of daily walking reduced their risk of hip fractures by 40 percent! In another study of post-menopausal women by University of Colorado at Boulder, they found that one or two miles of daily walking lowered blood pressure levels by 11 points and lowered their risk of stroke by 20 percent.
Of course the brain and the body are intimately connected, and walking has massive effects on the mental decline that we tie to aging. “Many people are passively waiting for researchers to find a magic pill that will stop Alzheimer’s. If I told you we have a way of lowering the risk by 60 percent and it was a drug, it would be the most popular drug going.” This “drug” that Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, is referring to is walking! Your hippocampus (responsible for converting short term memories into long term memory) actually grows new cells and becomes larger (Mayo Clinic study) from walking. Doidge explains that to understand why walking elicits such a response by the brain, we can look to our ancestors. “When did animals such as ourselves walk? It was usually when we had to leave the existing environment because of predators or to find food. We had to go to a new environment and, when we got there, we had to explore and learn all about it. The brain may have adapted to anticipate that when an animal goes on a long walk, it will be entering a new environment that it will explore and learn about – hence the brain forms new cells for that task.”
So the question remains: what are the proper biomechanics of gait and how can we help ourselves walk often and vigorously enough to reap all of these benefits? Check back on Friday to learn about the foundation of gait: your feet, and enjoy a great video that will help with the mobility, awareness, and function of your feet and balance.