Since we just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr Day as well as West Virginia Physical Activity day we'll start this piece on walking with one of his famous quotes. "If you can't fly then run. If you can't run then walk. If you can't walk then crawl. But whatever you do keep moving"
Another famous African American Redd Foxx had this to say "Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals dying of nothing" .
The medical evidence supports Dr. King. A recent video titled 23 hours by Dr. Mike Evans lays the case for the minimum daily requirement of a half hour a day of movement, even if you spend the rest of the day in sedentary activity. All the scientific studies come to the same conclusion: walking can increase your lifespan, prevent disease, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and improve your cognition function and mood.
More people walk for exercise than any other activity. It is the safest, easiest way to get into great shape and enjoy your natural surroundings. Many wanting to start or increase their enjoyment of this simple activity are surprised when I tell them there is an efficient walking technique. Let's go through some simple steps.
We begin with posture because it is the single most important factor in developing good walking form. When your posture is aligned properly, your body weight is supported by its structure and not your muscles. Standing and walking out of alignment can create fatigue and pain.
Good posture is a straight line that runs between your shoulder, hip, and ankle. My friend Michael Nirenberg in a soon to be released book called FloWalking uses the analogy of holding a broom handle at the bottom. Very little energy is needed to support it in this position. Now if you tilt it just a little, significant muscle usage is needed. The same thing occurs in your column when you are out of alignment . The most common posture we see today is the "texting position"- head forward, shoulders forward, spine out of it natural tall position.
Now lets set your posture-lengthen and align. Imagine yourself getting tall by elevating from a string pulling up what men commonly have as the bald spot (the occiput). Reach for an imaginary cookie jar on a high shelf that you can almost reach. Your spine is now elongated. To check your alignment your can look in a mirror from the side. Connect the dots of your ear, shoulder, hip, and ankle. Have a partner try to pull you down from the shoulders. If you collapse back then tilt your torso slightly forward and recheck.
Now let's go to the feet. Leonardo da Vinci called the foot a "masterpiece of engineering". Balance on the "tripod" of your foot: the inner and outer edge of the ball and the heel. Try to align our feet forward and balance under your hips, thigh width apart. Do NOT lock your knees, have a soft and gentle bend. Balance on one foot several times a day.
Your heel is a ball meant to roll forward. One of the most inefficient ways to walk is by locking your knee and hitting with the back side of your heel. Think as if your heel is a soccer ball and the area of the heel that is going to contact the ground is the bottom and roll forward from there. Your weight should move from heel to big toe, but think of it more as a smooth heel roll than a jolting heel strike. Your knee remains bent.
Lean gently from ankles. Your legs do not lead. Lead from the torso, not the head. This is a strange feeling as you start but one that feels fluid and natural as you progress. Think of a wheel- upper body going gently forward and legs going behind.
Use powerful posterior muscles, especially your glutes, to press down and back. These muscles are large, strong and resist fatigue. Rotate and twist from midsection. This is your T12/L1 area, which if located at the bottom of your ribcage. Swing yours arms swing to and fro facilitate this, relax hands, do not cross center line. Do not vigorously pump your arms either, but allow the natural stretch and return to happen as your arms swing like a pendulum.
To get started: lengthen, lean slightly forward from the ankles, and push your right foot down and back into the ground, using your glutes, and finishing with propulsion from your toes. Your left leg will naturally lift and step forward. Your stride may feel shorter than before, but gain the length by extending the led behind you. Feel this and practice. It will soon be smooth and springy. Practice barefoot in your house or a smooth surface at first.
Feel the propulsion of toes, especially the large toe. Use your toes- small and strong. Engage them to propel you. Without using your toes you must throw your heel forward, encouraging a locked knee when you land the next step.
So you want to walk faster? In walking your amount of elbow bend will control your cadence (number of steps per minute). In a nice relaxed saunter your elbows will be straight and steps about 50-60 per minute. Now bend elbows to about 45 degrees and watch your step count pick up to 60-65 per minute. For the real fitness walk you can go even quicker and bend your arms to 90 degrees to achieve a step count of over 65. Practice and feel it. Many fitness programs incorporate mixing running and walking in the daily sessions. I encourage this and one can keep the heart rate and speed up by using the quick walking cadence.
Now for a little on walking footwear. The Budda once said "The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground". Your healthcare provider or big box shoe store may have told you "get a cushioned and supportive walking shoe with good arch support". I would disagree with this statement as your foot provides significant propulsion to your walking stride. Many have been told they have "fallen arches" or what may be described better as "failing arches" from years of disuse. This can be reversed in most people with patience and practice.
Examples of improper walking shoes are the Reebok "toning shoes" that were recently held liable in a 25 Million dollar lawsuit for false claims. Other shoes which have a stiff rocker shape sole essentially create instability and roll your foot forward, removing all the foots' import muscular action and propulsion.
Progress into a thin, flexible, and flat shoe with a wide toe box and you will rediscover your foot's connection to the ground and why it is so critical to walking movement. Walk barefoot in your home as much as possible to strengthen your foot and lower leg tissues. Some may have a condition which necessitates a supportive shoe so talk with your health provider about this. Almost all can slowly and progressively get into thinner shoes and once they do never go back.
Avoid shoes with elevated heels too as this negatively affects foot balance and posture and encourages the hard heel hit with the foot out in front. Elevating the heel throws your body and compensations occur in every joint from your ankle, knee, hip and up to the back. It also encourages more active muscle use.
A fascinating article in the New York Times "A Scientific Look at the Dangers of High Heels" highlights some current research on walking mechanics and foot wear effects. Like running, walking is all about elasticity and using the tendons to spring and recoil. When you walk in heels you use more muscles and less spring, even when you throw your shoes off. My conclusion and the one shared by the author is that we need to reset the foot's "default" position to flat and train your feet and gait all day.
There are some fun accessories for walking if you need motivation. Pedometers are inexpensive and count number of steps. For most 2000 steps is about mile and the goal is to increase your step count ideally to 10,000 a day. GPS watches with measure distance with amazing accuracy. Heart Rate monitors are also a nice tool to monitor effort and to see your fitness progression.
ChiWalking by Danny and Katherine Dreyer
FloWalking by Dr. Michael Nirenberg
You Walk Wrong by Alan Sternberg; New Yorker Magazine