Is Your Walking Style Helping or Hurting?

Common Gait Problems Can Lead to Pain

Walking Path Through Park
Long Training Walk on Park Path. svetikd/E+/Getty Images

The way you walk might be what is causing your aches and pains. Sherry Brourman is a physical therapist who specializes in walking disorders and corrective walking techniques. She shares her experience on how changing your walking posture and gait can eliminate and prevent structural pain.

The Way You Walk Could Be the Source of Your Pain

Doesn't it seem like walking correctly should be something everybody does automatically? Unfortunately, that's not the case. Most people have something in their style of walking; i.e. an extreme foot turn-out, locked knees, a weak abdomen, that causes an imbalance in their body. 

On a daily basis, you walk more than any other physical activity. Have you ever really taken the time to analyze the way you walk? You have a walk all of your own called your Primary Movement Pattern (PMP). How you walk defines most everything about you, including predisposition to pain, athletic prowess, and health with respect to aging. And wouldn't it be amazing to discover that something about the way you walk is the actual culprit in why you have pain and that you can totally change it?

Your Primary Movement Pattern

Your walk involves several body parts, all interacting together to produce your style of head carriage, shoulder girdle, arm swing, hip movement, knee action, and the way you plant your foot. It's as natural as breathing, and if any of your six (two ankles, two knees, two hips) weight-bearing joints is just the tiniest bit askew, or crooked, you're at risk for structural pain.

Realize that one minor walking error repeated millions of times can do an incredible amount of damage to your muscles, nerves, and joints, eventually causing incredible pain. For your information, the average adult takes approximately 5000 steps per day per foot! That's a lot of chances to either strengthen a joint and the muscles around it or wear them down!

Your Gait Can be Changed

Because walking is perceived as an inherited trait, something immutable, or genetically fixed, your first reaction may be to doubt that anyone can change it. While genetics is a factor, it has relatively little to do with how you walk today. You learned it, and you can change it.

The Most Common Gait Problem: Leaning Back

Leaning back is by far the most common PMP deviation. About nine out of ten people with problematic posture tend to lean back, shifting their center of gravity from in front of the main support (hips, legs, and feet) to behind the main support (hip sitting). The trunk relaxes and rests or takes a seat in the hip joints. As a counterbalance, the shoulders, neck, and head roll forward to keep from falling backward.

Corrective Hints for Leaning Back When You Walk

Start by bringing your center of gravity forward. To accomplish this: tighten your belly muscles a little and bring your weight to the balls of your feet. Unlock your knees, feel how that makes it easier to lift your upper body up toward the ceiling and forward. It is not 'chest up, shoulders back', it's chest down shoulders square, crown of head up with chin in!

Military men, ballet dancers, models and good little children who sit up straight often exemplify the prototypical example of "good posture". That's a universal misconception. That "posture" works against your body. When your rib cage is lifted up and widened in front, or when your chest is raised even a little, it automatically throws your body's weight to the rear, which starts the problems associated with leaning back.

A Quick Self-Evaluation - the Shoelace Test

Here is the test to determine if you're forward enough. Stand your old way. Drop your chin onto your chest and look down. Do you see any toes down there? Unless you're really slender, you probably see your stomach or chest, or maybe you can see the tips of your shoes. What you should see when you're properly canted forward are the bows of your shoelaces (if your shoes don't have laces, pretend).

You must do the shoelace test while standing. Please do not try to check for your shoelaces while you're walking. That would cause your head to tilt down, forcing you to lean back when you walk, thus defeating the entire purpose of this exercise. The shoelace test is only for 'feeling' what forward cant is all about.

For every five degrees you change the tilt of your body, your keenly acute sense of balance will make you feel like it's tilting fifteen degrees. So if you shift your forward plane fifteen degrees, it will feel more like forty-five degrees, and you'll think you're about to fall forward. If you do, that's a fair indication that you're getting it right. It's awkward at first because you're ultra-sensitive inner ear and balancing system have got you believing that leaning back is really straight up and down. So when you're vertical, your sensation will be that of falling forward a little. That feeling of falling forward is one of the tools you need for a healthy gait.

Sherry Brourman, P.T., E-RYT 500 practices physical therapy and yoga therapy in Los Angeles.

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