This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 93 – October 2003
Imagine an exercise so easy and simple that almost everybody can do it, anywhere and anytime; that does not cost anything and that prolongs life. This exercise exists – it’s called walking. If you want to keep your bones strong so that they don’t become brittle, boost your cardiovascular and respiratory systems, control your body weight, walk off the effects of stress, combat fatigue, strengthen your whole muscular system, prevent high blood pressure and obesity, raise the level of your ‘good’ cholesterol and retard the ageing process… keep walking. Hippocrates was right when he said that “walking is Man’s best exercise”. If you want a long and healthy life, do what the so-called Father of Medicine ordered.
Yet, we must tone things down a little. True, walking is a natural activity and we learnt this typically human vertical mode of locomotion ‘instinctively’ at an early age. But, unfortunately, it does not take long before most of us develop bad walking habits. Between the ages of four and seven years, most children would have already lost the natural vertical way of walking and would start leaning forwards. “Patients are constantly advised to take walking exercise, although in many cases that exercise undoubtedly does more harm than good”, says FM Alexander, not because he is a killjoy, but because he has a case in point. Misuse of the Self can negate the beneficial effects of even the best of exercises. “A crooked man walked a crooked mile” goes the saying. In other words, if you misuse yourself, you will do so in all your activities, even the most harmless ones. The crooked man (distorted by years of misuse) could not walk the chalk.
Everybody knows that we have to walk before we can run. Likewise, we must stand before we can walk. To do the contrary would be like putting the cart before the horse, a sure way to end up in a bad rut.
Now, it’s practically impossible to teach someone how to walk properly; it’s much more simple, although still far from easy, to teach someone how not to walk. In other words, first to point out the errors and mistakes made while walking, which will be found to be part of a general misuse affecting all the psycho-physical activities, and then to teach this person how to inhibit these harmful idiosyncrasies. The static position of standing is a good place to start.
Most people writing about walking describe this activity as a ‘falling forward’ movement, like Emerson who wrote that, “The walking of man and all animals is a falling forward”, or Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that, “Walking then, is a perpetual falling with a perpetual self-recovery”. There is even a proverb which says that “A man’s walking is a succession of falls”, and a recent scientific article was entitled “The Physics of Walking: Falling Forward.” Why ‘falling forwards’? Why not falling backwards? Is it because we walk in a forward direction? Then, if we were to walk backwards would walking be described as a falling backwards? That most people walk in an ungraceful, ungainly and awkward manner with a forward inclination of the body does not mean that it is the normal way of walking. If walking is a falling forward, then it is bad walking. Walking as nature intended requires that the spine be lengthened and vertical. It’s the way adopted by people who are in the habit of carrying on the head and it is well known that they have the most graceful and efficient form of walking. If they were to lean forward while walking they will soon lose their loads unless they were to dangerously crane their necks. Walking should be a ‘falling upwards’! Learn to walk ‘as straight as an Indian’ – an expression which refers to the erect carriage of the early American Indian. Walk like a Mohawk, not like a gawk.
Misuse in the standing position usually displaces the centre of gravity forwards, but not because there is more weight in the front part of the body and that the back muscles are too weak to counteract the gravity’s push as some people wrongly assert. In fact, “…the upright body’s gravitational axis is in a plane more or less equidistant from the two primordial surfaces of the body, the dorsal and the ventral”, and the back muscles are never too weak but always too strong. As the hips and thighs will generally be found to be displaced forward, it is necessary to allow them to go back until, ideally, the greater trochanter (at the hip joint level) is directly above the ankle bone. During this corrective movement, care must be taken not to throw the upper body forwards and not to tilt the head back. In this new position, you might feel as if you were leaning forwards but, in reality, the centre of gravity of the body will have moved backwards and the weight line will pass through the rear of the foot rather than the front of it.
The next adjustment concerns the feet. If you want them to propel you with a mighty spring in your step, make sure they are parallel, i.e. straight forward or even slightly in-turned. This is a position of mechanical advantage that will ensure the best leverage during the important push-off phase of walking as the movement of flexion/extension of the foot on the leg at the ankle joint takes place along an axis at right angles to the middle line of the foot passing through the third or middle toe. Walking is the translation of the centre of gravity through space; its ‘propellant’ comes from your legs and feet and not by a leaning forwards of the torso – a headlong rushing to avoid a mythical falling. The first phase in walking must start with a heel strike which is impossible to do if you wear high heels. Don’t shuffle, lift the leg, extend it, flex the ankle and then proudly strike the ground with your heel.
A lot more could be said about the best of all exercises, but I hope this will put you on the right track. Just take the first step and make your own discoveries. Whatever your walk of life, walk for your life or, at least, for the good of your health.
1. Tobias PV. Man The Tottering Biped. CPME. New South Wales Australia. 1982.