Walk this way: In search of the perfect gait.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
"Your left foot turns out," comments my BFF. I glance down, and, sure enough, that old size seven-and-a-half has its own ideas about moving forward.
My first reaction is, "Great. Now what?" I've gotten my workout routine down, so my weight and fitness is under control and, under the guidance of Island experts, I've improved my skin. Now I have to think about my walk – which I'd really like to be graceful. But my left foot has other plans.
Being a modern woman, I first consulted the Internet. It offered "8 Steps to Walking Gracefully," "10 Steps to Walking Gracefully," and any number of videos with any number of steps. What I found is a lot of circular thinking, that is, if you want to walk gracefully, walk gracefully.
Posture is also a biggie. There's a lot of the age-old walking with a book on your head to pull your spine into alignment, but if, like me, you're of the round-headed genre, nothing short of tattooing a bookshelf on your scalp will keep that tome head-borne. Also, I grew up among a lot of people whose mothers constantly urged them to "STAND. UP. STRAIGHT." only to find out later that without upper body exercise, the muscles in their backs didn't support good posture.
Confusing, non? So, I opened my gait to two Island experts: Max Sherman is a personal trainer at the YMCA of Martha's Vineyard and founder of MX FTNSS. He's nationally certified as a Personal Trainer, a Nutrition Specialist, and a Strength and Training Specialist.
Dr. John Lacoste is the major domo of All Cape Chiropractic, a practice that specializes in chiropractic spinal adjustment, massage therapy, and occupational therapy.
Max took me for a walk. "There's a bit of toe flare in the left foot," he confirmed. "The knee on the left side seems to be not as stable. That could be because of the toe flare. The knee tries to correct by turning in."
Turns out, women in general tend to walk with their feet slightly splayed. "...especially after childbirth," Dr. John informs. "The pelvis loosens to allow that baby to come out. If it doesn't come back to what we call a perfect position, there may be some change in the pelvic structure. What will that do to the hips that are attached to the pelvis?"
My turnout, it seems, is a little more pronounced on one side, probably because of some knee reconstruction in my twenties. "Because of the surgery, you probably relied on your right leg more," Max explains. And the whole shebang throws my left hip out of balance, causing me to sometimes step out wider on that side and even cross over my other foot sometimes. "Your right side is more strong and stable, so that's your go-to side. Everyone has that side, but we have to try to distribute the weight evenly."
Sheesh! Have I been staggering like a drunk all these years? Max reassures me it's not that noticeable, but I also know it's not very attractive.
Splaying and Dis-splaying
Besides being aesthetically irky, the splayed foot walk — again, practiced by most women — is unhealthy. "It puts your body weight off-balance and [puts] pressure on the joints instead of on the muscles," Max explains. Besides specific exercises he suggests for my errant foot malady, he recommends yoga for strength and flexibility.
John Lacoste has a more surprising tactic. "Put your shoes on the opposite feet," he counsels. "Walk around the house like that for a short period of time each day. It turns your feet the opposite way. You reeducate that structure slowly."
He also recommends that during long walks, for the first hundred yards or so, over-concentrate on the position of your feet. "Then we do what we call the 'drunk test.' Put one foot before the other like you're walking on a line," he elaborates. "That forces you to put the feet forward."
But he, too, advocates yoga. "It's about balance," he says. "If you're balanced, then you have a better chance of walking normally and functioning normally. It's a fantastic avenue to follow up on. And, thankfully, we have a plethora (of classes) on the Island."
The ideal walk, according to Dr. John, is one where the feet are as straight as possible and set as wide as the shoulders. Arms should swing freely and move forward with the opposite leg.
Walk with a comfortable stride. "If you have too small a stride, it's not going to give you much benefit as to cardio-vascular output," he says. "If you have too long a stride, you could be stretching your ligaments and your joints in your hips and back."
And speed? "You've heard this before," John advises. "if you can have a conversation with someone walking next to you without having to breathe too heavily, without stress, you're at a comfortable pace."
Shoulders should be in a neutral position. "If you can put your thumbs in your pockets," he demonstrates, "your shoulders are neutral." He slumps to show a hands-too-low position. "If you walk like that, you're going to affect your organs — your heart functions, your lungs. You're going to compress everything."
The Grand Entrance
Max watched while I took the stairs — up, then down. "Your toes were pretty straight on that," he observes. Ah. A victory! Most people both of the female and male persuasion — turn their feet out while climbing stairs. "They think their feet are enormous and can't get the whole foot onto the step," Max explains. Like walking with flared feet, taking stairs that way throws off the balance and puts the weight on the joints. As if this wasn't enough for our poor bone ends, we also tend to overextend our legs; we lock our knees. Which I did.
"Keep knees bent at all times," Max urges. "We spend all this time in the gym, strengthening muscles, honing muscles, building muscles, and then we lock the joints. You put the weight of your body into your knees instead of letting your muscles do the work."
Dr. John recommends using the banister. "Why make it harder than it has to be? Use your judgment and use the banisters whenever possible, regardless of age."
Don't Close the Gait
Proper walking technique is an ongoing process. Correcting it doesn't happen overnight, and when you accumulate thousands of tiny shocks to your spine and joints by battering them with an improper gait, you will eventually do some harm. According to Dr. John, improper posture while walking can affect your back and your hips. If you're slouching forward, it compresses your lungs, your heart has to work harder, your shoulders round off, and you can develop a real pain in the neck.
So, how do you stay upright? Max suggests checking yourself throughout the day. "Where are my toes?" he suggests you question. "Where are my knees? Where are my hips?"
John Lacoste finishes that notion with prompts. "You take little Post-Its and write 'posture' on them. Fix them all over your house or all over your environment. Every time you see that little sticker, you sit or stand up straight. It will eventually become a habit for you."
Meantime, I'm working on it. I'm spending my mornings with my slippers on the wrong feet (more than a little disconcerting.) Stickies paper my room to remind me to be aware of my posture. I'm frequently doing my left foot exercises to retrain that very spoiled side of my anatomy. Next time you see me, I'll be runway ready — not to mention that much healthier.
Oh, and soon as I can, I'm signing up for yoga classes.
But I'll open that gait in another article.
Max Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. John Lacoste, DC, CCSP, can be reached at All Cape Chiropractic, 508-696-3060.