Walking is a great activity for fitness. It’s free, low impact, and you can do it almost anywhere. It’s appropriate for individuals with and without pain. However, choosing where you walk is important. The right environment can challenge your body while helping you stay in neutral and make strides with your therapy program. The wrong environment can wreck it.
The worst place to walk is on the treadmill. The mechanics of walking on a treadmill are completely different than walking on the ground. Walking on land requires you to pull yourself over the ground by using your hamstrings. You also have to shift your weight from side to side in order to power the swinging leg forward. As the ground is essentially pulled out from under you on a treadmill, your only goal is to not fall over. There is no signficant and variable change in direction, incline, or stability of the ground. The body doesn’t have to work as hard or focus on keeping your core stable. Additionally, many people hold on to handrails to keep their balance. This is not great for your spine. As your legs are moving, your pelvis and lower back are rotating. When your hands are fixed, the tension cannot be destributed along the spine as designed. Lastly, many people watch TV or look at a magazine while walking on a treadmill. This also causes the body to lock down and operate on auto-pilot as the visual system is now anchored on a visual target.
Walking on a track or inside the mall is better. Your body now has to pull you forward in space and you’ll likely be using your arms, but there is still no change in incline, flooring surface, and it’s still relatively easy to lock your visual system.
Walking outdoors is great. Simply walking in the neighborhood gives you enough incline variability and visual stimulation to keep your body awake and attentive. Walking on a trail is even better. Even if it’s a paved trail, the surface is not completely flat. Your muscles and brain have to constantly monitor how your foot is hitting the ground to keep your balance. Different chains of muscles have to turn off/on depending on if you’re going up or downhill. It’s hard to visually anchor as there is so much visual stimuli for your brain to monitor.
So get outside and get those steps in! Your body will thank you!
Written by Lesley Callaham, MPT, PRC July 9, 2018.