One of the most common physical complaints clients bring to us is pain in their back and knees when they are standing and walking. We live in a hilly area so add to that the challenge to their joints when walking up and downhill.
This is one of my favorite topics as I feel that people should be able to walk freely without pain for as long as they would like. Walking is important for so many reasons including cardiovascular health, joint mobility, balance, bone density, psychological well-being, and on and on and on. Best of all, walking is free and can be done indoors or outdoors all year round regardless of where you live.
My favorite past time is watching people walk, which my clients can attest to, as it is so curious to me how we manipulate and contort our bodies simply to move forward in space. The challenge most people face is how they carry the weight of their bodies as they walk. People have interesting ways of holding themselves as they move, often tipped forward leading head first, and sometimes leaning back and leading with the pelvis.
One strategy I use with clients is to imagine your body as a stack of boxes: one box for your lower legs, one for your upper legs, one for the pelvis, then the torso and finally the head. As you stand, without changing anything, notice how your boxes stack. Are they piled neatly one on top of the other, or do you have some forward, some back or maybe some shifted to the side or even rotated? Try it for yourself. Go ahead, stand up and check your boxes.
Now working from the ground up, start to gently shift each box back into place until all feel as uniformly stacked as possible for you. What did you notice? Did your weight shift back onto your heels, do you feel taller, did your low back relax? Great place to start.
Now head outside or to an area where you can walk unobstructed in a straight line for at least 20 feet. Put one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Start to walk and notice if one hand leads forward more than the other. Is the chest now in front of the pelvis, or the pelvis in front of the chest? Great, stop. Now in standing again, stack up your boxes then try walking while keeping the boxes of your pelvis, trunk and head stacked. Your arms and legs are free here so allow them to swing with ease as you maintain your stacked boxes. How does that feel? Maybe awkward or slow at first but with any change, it will feel normal soon enough.
So what about hills? Glad you asked.
Find a hill with a good but manageable incline. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly and start climbing. Whoa, what happened? Did you you instantly tip forward, leading head first to match the angle of the hill’s incline? This is common, and the cause of many people’s back and knee pain. Not only have you just shifted all of your weight forward over the knee of one leg (how often are you doing one-legged squats these days?), but the forward lean triggers your low back to hold on for dear life to stop you from falling face first.
Let’s go back to our boxes. Standing on the hill, notice if you naturally lean into the hill like a ski jumper ready to take flight. Now from the ground up, stack up your boxes vertically. The trick is maintaining this as you then walk up the hill. Here’s the solution: instead of taking a large step forward in an attempt to pull yourself up the hill, imagine you are simply walking up a set of stairs (guess what? This trick works on stairs too!). A stair’s tread is only as deep as your foot, if that, so your step forward is only going to be about that length. Go ahead and try it, just one imaginary step at a time. Now don’t your knees feel much better? As you become more fluent in walking with stacked boxes, your stride length will naturally increase, but for now, baby steps.
Any easy way to encourage stacked-box walking is to use walking poles. These simple tools are a great way to maintain good posture as you move but also to incorporate an upper body workout to further promote cardiovascular health on a cellular level (aka using all of your muscles to pump blood through your body, not just your heart muscle).
On your next walk, pay attention to your boxes. As one slides out of place just slide it right back in. Note: stacking your boxes does not mean holding your body in a rigid state while trying to move. The process of stacking your boxes should have the affect of creating a more relaxed and effortless way of moving and standing. You may go through this “restacking” repeatedly as you learn this new strategy, but the more you practice the more automatic it will become to walk, stand and climb stairs with stacked boxes.
Notice now that you can walk longer and farther with less discomfort. Happy walking!
Holly Wallis, Certified Movement & Rehabilitation Specialist, PMA®-CPT
Director of US Operations, Body Harmonics Pilates & Movement Institute
Studio Director, ReActive Movement, 6200 LaSalle Ave, Oakland, CA 94611
© 2017. All rights reserved.