Talk the walk

We spend a lot of time and money staying active and fit. Between the cost of memberships, athletic equipment, and appropriate clothing, fitness is a mutli-billion-dollar business. Yet there’s one incredibly basic, common and essentially cost-free activity most of us can pursue that’s easy, rewarding, convenient and okay alone or in crowds – yup, you guessed, it is walking!

Walking at a moderate pace for 30 to 60 minutes burns stored fat, builds muscle and speeds up our metabolism. Here are some other benefits:

  • Walking can reduce our risk of heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes and stroke.
  • Walking is low-impact, which means it causes less stress to our joints and our body than high-impact activities such as running.
  • Walking is a weight-bearing exercise, which helps prevent the onset of osteoporosis in women.
  • Walking reduces stress, improves blood flow and circulation, aids our respiratory system and helps reduce or limit weight gain.

If there’s any downside at all to walking, it’s that people who may have strained or damaged joints (knees and hips) or bad backs may find walking more difficult or painful. Ironically, though, back pain often is the result of wearing the wrong types of shoes for the activity of choice – or the wrong shoes, in general.  In fact, more than 50 percent of working Americans suffer from back pain each year, according to the American Chiropratic Association Not only that, but back pain ranks as the number-two reason people see a doctor, overall.

Often, there are two primary reasons why walking can hurt our backs. The first is what we choose to wear on our feet, and the second reason is how we actually walk, relative to posture, stride and form. For example, for women who wear high heels, these fashionable but typically uncomfortable shoes can throw off the alignment of our spine, adding extra stress and strain on the lower back. At the other extreme, shoes like flip flops are so flat that the lack of support can lead to arch, heel pain, ankle or knee pain.

Athletic shoes are grouped into categories for running, training and walking. This includes shoes for hiking, jogging and exercise walking. For a walking shoe, look for a comfortable soft upper, good shock absorption, smooth tread, and a rocker sole design that encourages the natural roll of the foot during the walking motion. Joggers, on the other foot, should wear a shoe with more cushioning impact. Running shoes are designed to provide maximum overall shock absorption for the foot. Such a shoe should also have good heel control. Walking shoes have more rigidity in the front so you can roll off your toes rather than bend through them as you do with running shoes.

We do not necessarily need a different pair of shoes for every sport in which we participate. Generally, people should wear sport-specific shoes for sports played more than three times a week. If you have worked out for some time injury-free, then stick with the particular shoe you have been wearing. There is really no reason to change.

Wearing the right shoes for the job or activity is critical, but so is making sure they’re the right size. If it’s been two or more years since your feet were professionally sized, there’s a good chance your shoes aren’t fitting you properly.  Feet change shape as we age, and tight-fitting footwear can lead to heel pain, deformed toes, bunions, corns, calluses, ingrown toenails, and a host of other painful problems.

Unless you’ve been sized recently, be careful about wearing shoes purchased over the Internet. Instead, go to a store with knowledgeable salespeople and have them measure your feet. If possible, purchase athletic shoes from a specialty store. The staff will provide valuable input on the type of shoe needed for your sport as well as help with proper fitting. This may cost a little more but is worthwhile, particularly for shoes that are used often.

Proper-fitting sports shoes can enhance performance and prevent injuries. Follow these fitting facts when purchasing a new pair of athletic shoes.

  • Try on athletic shoes after a workout or run and at the end of the day. Your feet will be at their largest.
  • Wear the same type of sock that you will wear for that sport.
  • When the shoe is on your foot, you should be able to freely wiggle all of your toes.
  • Since it’s common to have feet of different sizes, be sure to have both feet measured and fit to the larger of the two.
  • The shoes should be comfortable as soon as you try them on. There is no break-in period.
  • Walk or run a few steps in your shoes. They should be comfortable.
  • Always re-lace the shoes you are trying on. You should begin at the farthest eyelets and apply even pressure as you create a crisscross lacing pattern to the top of the shoe.
  • There should be a firm grip of the shoe to your heel. Your heel should not slip as you walk or run.

The importance of posture and stride

As with any form of exercise, good form plays a vital role in keeping us fit and healthy. How we stand, and the way we walk can cause back pain and muscle stress. Here are some tips for proper walking technique:

  • Posture: Stand up straight and look ahead. Don’t look down at your feet or the pavement below since that puts excessive and unnecessary strain on our neck and back.
  • Overstriding: Walk naturally. When we walk faster, a natural inclination is to lengthen our stride in front. Don’t. We should concentrate on taking shorter, quicker steps to avoid striking the ground too hard with our feet.
  • Understriding: On the flip side, avoid taking steps that are too small. This can constrict our muscles and their elasticity. We need to listen to our bodies. If we’re not comfortable as we move, we need to change our stride.
  • Flapping feet: If our feet hit the ground with a slap we’re probably fighting stiff shoes or our shins are too weak to let us roll through the step properly. Find a good pair of walking shoes that flex at the balls of the feet, and work on strengthening the shins.
  • Arm swing: A normal walking motion uses the arms to counterbalance the leg motion. We can add power and speed by using our arms effectively. To do this, bend your arms at a 90-degree angle and swing them naturally back and forth opposite your legs. Avoid under-using your arms by not moving them enough or overusing them by moving them faster than your legs.

Finally, no matter what we wear or how we walk, if our feet, legs or back are hurting us when we’re walking or when at rest, we need to visit a general physician or orthopedist, or to see a podiatrist, a doctor who specializes in foot care. A podiatrist checks out our feet, gait, and alignment.

He or she may recommend specialized footwear that has been modified to treat our particular foot condition, most often with inserts or orthotics that provide extra support. These can lead to improvements in foot and overall alignment, which can result in more efficient muscle use. You can also get shoes custom made to address your specific foot and back issues.

It’s important that we keep walking, whether indoors at the mall, at work and school, or outdoors enjoying nature and the elements around us.  Proper shoes and a basic understanding of the physiology of walking will go a long way toward enjoyment and improved health.

# # #

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!