A 1988 survey by the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, reported in The Toronto Star (May, 1991), indicated that walking is the main activity for 63 percent of Canadians who are physically active.
In the article, Julie Twynham, walking and aerobic coordinator for the Fitness Institute, said this is partly because older people are becoming increasingly unable to take the stress on their joints that accompanies activities like jogging. She pointed out that walking places minimal stress on the joints and muscles, thus reducing risk of injury, and that it helps improve posture, muscle tone and bone strength.
While the above statements are true – or at least partially true, and we’ll come to that later – the common occurrence of shoes that are unevenly worn down on either the outer or inner edge of the heels shows that this most natural of activities is not stress-free. When weight is not centred on the soles of the feet, the ankles either pronate or supinate, which stresses the tendons and ligaments. Uneven weight can also cause foot ailments like bunions and fallen arches, and imbalanced leg muscles can create stress on the knees as well.
Weak or too mobile ankles may be the cause of rolling ankles, but often the carriage of the body is at fault. Pronation is likely to occur when the pelvis tips forward and throws weight to the inside of the legs. This is even more pronounced when the feet are turned outward. Supination is more apt to happen when the back is slouched and the pelvis tips backward.
Correcting the alignment of the body can help greatly to centre weight on the feet and straighten the ankles. However, leg muscles must be rebalanced before any change to one’s usual walking mode will feel normal, or remain permanent. This can be accomplished with the simple exercise described in the accompanying box if it is done conscientiously over a period of time. It rebalances muscles by bringing the second toe, centre of the ankle, knee and hip joint into alignment. corrects the alignment of the legs and rebalances muscles by centreing weight from the hip joints through the knees and ankles to the second toe. It also lifts and strengthens the arches.
Walking can improve muscle tone and bone strength, as mentioned in the article, but it’s questionable whether it helps improve posture. Walking is, however, a good time to practise good posture and the proper use of the body by being aware of the muscles that hold it properly supported.
Most important, the abdominal muscles should be drawn upward into the waist so the pelvis is straight and the hip joints are forward. The back should be supported by a slight contraction and downward pull of the shoulder blades. This also opens the chest and squares the shoulders. The base of the skull lifts to elongate the neck and support the head. With the body thus aligned, one can walk with a sense of ease and lightness.
Momentum comes from pushing off with the ball of the foot on each step – many people simply “land” on their feet instead of using them to apply pressure. At the same time, the buttock of the same leg contracts to keep the hips moving forward and the body over the feet. If the shoulders are free of tension, the arms will swing loosely in natural counterbalance to the legs. Being mindful of the body in these ways will do much to improve posture, make walking more vital and pleasurable and ensure that it is stress free.
A final word in regard to shoes: Absent some specific problem such as uneven leg lengths, or a medical reason, shoes should not have to be expensive or specially designed. When the body is properly aligned, a pliable, cushioned sole that allows the foot muscles to work should be all that’s needed. A too rigid, or platform, sole minimizes the sensitivity of the feet and detracts from total body involvement.
To align the legs and feet
Stand with the feet apart, directly under the hip joints, with the second toe of each foot in line with the centre of the ankle. If the ankles pronate, roll the feet outward slightly so weight is centred. If weight falls on the outer edges, straighten the ankles by rolling the feet slightly inward. (When weight is centred, the feet contact the ground across the balls of the feet, down the outer edges, and on the centre of the heels; a footprint in sand should be “empty” on the inside edges.)
Slowly bend the knees, directing them forward over the second toe. The inside of the thighs should be relaxed so the legs are “separated,” and not holding toward each other. Stay in this position as long as possible, allowing the muscles of the legs and feet to be affected.
To straighten the legs, push the feet against the floor, then, when the legs are straight, tighten the thighs and press the bottom of the buttocks forward to strengthen the alignment of the legs.
This position of the feet will feel “pigeon-toed” to most people at first, however, it is only for the purpose of rebalancing the muscles. It is not intended that the feet remain straight forward if turning them out when walking feels more natural. Once the rebalancing of muscles is accomplished, weight will fall squarely on the soles of the feet and the ankles will be straight, whether the feet are pointed forward or outward.