Do you want to walk better?
Of course, you do! There are few things in life as gratifying and mind clearing as a walk or a stroll.
But what if you have difficulty walking? If your back hurts or your knees creak it is hard to get outside and go for a walk.
I’m not talking about a power walk.
I’m not talking about getting out there for the singular intention of getting your heart rate up or losing some weight.
I’m talking about a take-your-time mindful stroll. A time when you clear your head, notice nature, pay attention to your thoughts, your breath, your movement and reconnect with what is important in your life.
I want to take a moment to talk about the importance of your whole body–particularly the importance of your head and your spine in walking.
I’m going to introduce you to some basic principles of the Alexander Technique.
If you are not familiar with the Alexander Technique it is a mindfulness practice that teaches you how to move and function more naturally. It has been around for over 125 years and was developed by Frederick M. Alexander. Alexander was an Australian actor who had chronic laryngitis. through hours of observation, he saw that the habitual way he breathed and held himself was creating the problem. He discovered that if he could stop these harmful habits his breathing and vocal projection improved.
In short, Alexander was causing his laryngitis and since he was causing the problem he could then–with careful attention to himself–undo the problem.
The way that your head relates to your spine also effects how well you walk.
If you look at a very small child around the ages of 1-3 you will see that her head rests ever-so-effortlessly on top of her spine. Her back is straight. There is unity. Look at the photo below. See how her head is beautifully upright.
Now, look at her mom.
See how her head is very different. Her chin is jutting forward while the back of her head is tilting down.
I know the difference is subtle but it exists.
I go into this in more detail in my Amazon bestselling book Agility at Any Age: Discover the Secret to Balance, Mobility, and Confidence. You can learn more about my book here.
So before we start to think about walking we need to think about how our head relates to our spine.
Stand up and repeat the following Guided Standing Instructions to yourself.
- Think of softening your tongue and jaw. In other words, don’t clench your jaw or scrunch up your tongue
- Allow the spine to spring away from the pelvis towards the head. Allow the head to release forward and up, so that the nose may drop slightly. Thinking up and forward then look ahead with the intention of walking towards something in front of you.
- Now take a step and then continue walking. Tell yourself to walk through the big toe. Allow your knees to release forward. What do you notice?
When you are walking well you should feel as if you are floating.
Your feet may feel as if they are rolling along the floor. You may feel light and buoyant and you should feel propelled forward.
Last month I wrote about the importance of the big toe. I cannot overstate this enough. It isn’t just about walking from heel to toe.
To recap: when you walk well the heel meets the ground towards the outside of the heel. Your body weight then rolls diagonally across the large arch of the foot to the ball of the foot and then to the big toe.
The big toe has 2 very important jobs.
- It plays a big role in maintaining your balance
- It helps propel you forward.
Thus a free and flexible big toe is imperative for good walking.
This means that flexible, pliant shoes are also imperative.
Once again I go into this in more detail here.
Next, add the arms.
When you walk well your arms should swing by your side. Arm swinging improves stability and reduces the amount of energy used while walking. And here is a little bit of trivia: when runners want to increase their speed they are told to move their arms faster not their legs! So swinging your arms is important when going out for a walk.
When your left foot comes forward your right arm should come forward and vice versa. This is called cross patterning. Most of us cross pattern. When children crawl they practice cross patterning by bringing the opposite leg forward with the opposing arm. The cross pattern movement creates a pathway between the left and right side of the brain. This is one reason why it is so important for children to crawl; they learn coordination through cross patterning.
Cognitive issues such as dyslexia have been linked to an inability to cross pattern well. It has been my experience working with seniors that many lose the ability to cross pattern or swing their arms in opposition to their legs and thus their co-ordination suffers. The good news is that you can encourage and relearn how to cross pattern. Let’s try it!
I call this next sequence Wait, Shift and Turn. Take a hard chair like a kitchen chair or dining room chair. Sit on your sitz bones. To find your sitz bones place your hands palm side up and sit on them. Do you feel the hard bones pressing into your palms? These are your sitz bones and to sit with any ease you must be sitting on your sitz bones.
Now shift your left shoulder forward. Keep your head looking forward. Return to neutral, by that I mean come back to sitting over both sitz bones with your shoulders squared. Next, do the opposite. Shift your weight over your left sitz bone and while attending to your directions bring your right shoulder forward while keeping your head looking forward and return to neutral.
Do several of these Wait, Shift and Turn sequences. Notice that it is as if you are walking on your sitz bones. I always feel as if I am in the Broadway musical West Side Story singing “When You’re a Jet” when I do this! This simple sequence helps to restore latent cross patterning.
Now stand up and walk and notice how much easier it is to swing the opposite arm to the opposite leg. If cross patterning is difficult for you then commit yourself to practice this daily. Eventually, you will improve the swinging of your arms as well as your balance and coordination.
A common position seniors adopt that interferes with their walking is leaning forward from the waist or upper back. In order to counterbalance their weight being so far forward, they bend their elbows and hold them up and back behind themselves. Look at yourself in your mirror and see if this is you. Just by looking at this position you can see how your balance is compromised. People in this position are often told to “stand up straight” and so they haul themselves up through the torso and shove their shoulders back. As we all know all too well this never works. Let’s approach this habit another way.
As always stop and wait and give yourself your Guided Standing Instructions and ask your self to lower your elbows towards your waist and allow the arms to come forward and down. While you do this ask yourself to allow the spine to spring up towards your head.
Has your breathing improved with this shift? Are you more upright? What is your head neck relationship like? The release of your arms by your side provides a nice bit of direction up through the spine.
Now take a walk and allow your arms to swing. Here is something else to think about. Think about where you are coming from not what you are going towards. Think about what you are leaving behind you as you walk. This thought will allow you to walk taller.
Because the forward stance has become habituated it is going to take a lot of attention and easy practice to re-organize yourself with your elbows forward and down and your spine lengthening up towards your skull.
Most of us have a dominant leg when we walk and stand.
Usually, it is the leg that we start off with. It is probably the leg that you always use when you start to climb stairs. Sometimes it will be the leg that you lean on. Because this leg is the first to be engaged it is also the leg that will be overly tense. A simple way for you to spread the workload is to count up to three as you walk. Each stride will take one count. In this way, you will alternate the burden of the starting leg.
We all need to walk and walk more. Our culture is far too sedentary. I am not saying anything new, but if you don’t walk you won’t be able to walk. I have a saying it goes like this “If you do it you can do it but if you don’t do it you can’t.” It may seem obvious but it never is. If you want to walk then you need to walk. If you have not been walking much, it is never too late to start walking more.
The human body is designed to move. We are sitting ourselves to death. We need to walk every single day. Use walking sticks and set realistic goals for your self. You may start by walking to your mailbox and back. Increase the distance in increments. Do not overextend yourself. Add a few minutes at a time. When you increase your distance wait a few days before increasing again.
Give your body time to develop strength and endurance. If you find yourself getting tired then lessen your walking time for a few days. Your body responds to new challenges by becoming stronger. This is what exercise is all about. Challenge builds strength. But the challenge has to be appropriate. A goal of 30 minutes of walking a day may seem daunting at first, but by gradually increasing your time, soon it will become a reality.
Walking on different surfaces will also add a new level of challenge. Think about it, most of the surfaces we walk on are hard and flat such as flooring in your home or the pavement in your driveway or sidewalk. But we humans are designed to walk on grass, rocks, sand, and dirt. These surfaces are rough and not uniformly even. In short, pavement does not challenge you. If you don’t live in a large city you can easily add some rough surfaces to your walking practice. So grab your walking sticks and head out onto some grass or gravel!
We have spent time talking about how to walk so now let’s talk about why we walk.
There are two things I want you to embrace. Walking is exercise and exercise is movement. Don’t sell walking short. This is my soapbox. There is a whole fitness industry that wants to make you believe that you need this piece of exercise equipment or you need to be subscribing to this form of exercise in order to be effective. The result is that a lot of people are really intimidated. If you have a body and are reasonably mobile you can move. Even if you are unsteady on your feet you can still explore movement sitting on your hard chair.
You have learned many new skills. You have learned how to organize yourself in a way so that movement is easier. In particular, walking is easier and is more efficient. Set aside time in your day to go for a walk and think about yourself in this new and improved way while walking. This is mindfulness. Constructively paying attention to yourself is the way in which you will improve the way you move and react. Wear thinly soled flexible shoes. Stay away from heavily padded sneakers. Increase your walking in increments of a few minutes and space out the increments every few days. Use walking sticks to help with balance. Walk on uneven surfaces to challenge and improve balance and mobility. Count to three while walking so as to ensure an even and consistent gait. Make walking a daily activity.
My name is Mary Derbyshire. I am a fitness and movement coach. My methodology is the Alexander Technique, a mindfulness practice that teaches you how to move better. When you move better you feel better and when you feel better your whole life improves! Let me know what you think or ask a question! I love to hear from my readers! Feel free to post in the comments section below and feel free to share this with your friends!