Walking is one of the most accessible forms of physical activity, it starts by placing one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. As a health fitness professional I enjoy walking in my community and hiking and exploring the trails in the Columbia Gorge, Washington and coastal mountain range around Portland Oregon.
Yesterday while walking in my neighborhood, I noticed a couple, possibly in their mid sixties, walking on the other side of the street and I had a good opportunity to analyze their posture while they walked. Both the man and woman were slightly bend forward from their upper back and their eyes were directed towards the ground at all times. It is important to scan for obstacles in your path to avoid hazards, however constantly looking down at the ground can be detrimental to mobility as you age and can impact ability to live independently to age 90+ or beyond.
I want to share some important walking tips that you can incorporate into your walking program no matter if you are a beginner or have been actively engaged in walks or hikes for years. We all need reminder of why we need to 'walk this way’.
Walk tall, imagine that a string is attached to the top of your head that slightly pulls you upward lengthening the spine and lifting your ribcage, retract your chin so that your ears move over your shoulders.
Keep your eyes directed forward on the horizon and periodically scan your path ahead for obstacles. When you have balance issues, focussing on a vertical target like a lamp post, tree or building as you walk which can be beneficial to avoid dizziness.
Engage your abdominals by slightly contracting the muscle, this can relief back pain and helps you maintain posture.
Breathe normally while walking, at moderate intensity you should be able to hold a conversation, when you are able to sing you probably do not walk fast enough, however when you are grasping to catch your breath you probably need to reduce your speed. The ‘talk test’ is a good way to monitor your exercise intensity.
Relax your shoulders while you walk and swing your arms loosely from the shoulders, when your right leg comes forward the opposite arm should also swing forward. As we age we often lose the ability to swing our arms and our step length reduces. Swinging your arms also prevents swelling from blood pooling in your hands and fingers.
Keep your front leg straight but not locked.
Your knees and toes should be pointed forward, I have observed many people where the toes are turned out, this could increase tripping hazards and stress to the knees which can lead to joint damage, increasing joint pain and may even lead to the need of joint replacement.
Land on your heel first ‘heel strike’, many people walk too much with the feet hitting the ground almost flat because limited ankle range of motion. Limited ability to pick up the toes increase risk of tripping and falls. Pay attention to how high you can lift up your toes while walking. Good ankle range of motion and the ability to have a heel strike increases stride length and a faster walking ability.
Walking speed can be increased once you have mastered the technique. Periodically check the points above by beginning either at the top of your head with correcting posture and eyes directed forwards etc., or starting with the heel strike and moving up to the knees, relaxing the shoulders and arm swing etc.
Ask a friend to analyze your posture several times when walking and when you are not thinking about your posture.
References: Walk the Talk ACE professional's guide to developing walking programs, FallProof balance and mobility instructor manual, ANWA nordic walking.