Best foot forward – are you walking correctly?

Not all walks are created equal. We talk with a Dubai physio, who says our gait is crucial to our health.
Physiotherapist Galen Carroll looks on as his colleague Andrea Duggan demonstrates a healthy gait. Anna Nielsen for The National
Physiotherapist Galen Carroll looks on as his colleague Andrea Duggan demonstrates a healthy gait. Anna Nielsen for The National

The way we walk has a much bigger impact on our overall health than many of us realise. Believe it or not, there is a specific walking technique that helps to maintain healthy joints, muscles and ligaments, and getting it wrong can cause long-term damage.

Known as the walking gait cycle, the technique refers to our natural ability to propel ourselves forward. “Simply put, the gait cycle is a repetitive movement that requires a consistent heel strike on both feet with an adequate push off through your foot on propulsion,” explains Galen Carroll, senior physiotherapist at Mediclinic Dubai Mall.

This heel strike, Carroll says, is critical for a healthy walk as it exposes each leg to the force equivalent of around 140 per cent of our body weight when we walk, and up to 300 per cent when we run.

If a person’s heel is not striking the ground with the knee and hips aligned correctly, it can work or even strain the wrong muscles, creating a risk for short- and long-term damage. And with the average person taking more than 3,000 steps a day – which is still 7,000 less than the recommended amount – it’s important we get it right.

“The technique we use when we walk can stress the joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles of the body in different ways,” Carroll says. “People with a poor walking pattern can predispose themselves to muscle weakness in the ankle, knee or hip. This muscle weakness can then impact on their ability to run, jump or climb stairs.”

The key to mastering an anatomically proper walk, he says, is concentrating on the hips, knee and ankle.

“I like to use the analogy of a train track when describing a neutral walking pattern. If you were to look down towards your legs during walking, your hips, knee and ankles should be parallel throughout the movement.

“You should have a relatively stable pelvis with minimal rotation and sway while using your arms to aid with balance and propulsion.”

Carroll provides “gait re-education” as part of his physiotherapy treatments and urges patients to remember “heel strike, roll through, and push off through your toes, or rock from your heel to your toes”.

Natural biomechanics, acute injuries and poor footwear can all influence a person’s walking style.

In the initial stages after an injury a person might compensate by using different muscles to avoid pain, which will not help them in the long term and needs to be rectified early, Carroll says.

Our choice of footwear also plays a huge role. Shoes with minimal support in the heels, such as flat pumps, reduce the wearer’s ability to complete a proper heel strike as well as not providing any shock absorbency.

“In prehistoric times there was no such thing as footwear. Our ancestors walked in their bare feet and hunted and gathered both walking and running with absolutely no support for their feet. Heels affect the heel strike and the roll forward.

“Unfortunately this is no longer possible as the surfaces we traverse are becoming harder and less forgiving in the concrete jungles we now live,” he says.

Published: April 21, 2016 04:00 AM


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