The Upside of Walking
In 2020, with the closure of gyms, many people switched to walking. Even hard core exercisers learned to love walking, one male writer dubbing it “the superior form of exercise”. Walking is Covid-safe, hassle free, and expands to fit the time you have. Fitness, therapy, entertainment, and transportation rolled into one.
Doctors call walking a magic pill for its well-researched benefits: improved mood, circulation, brain power, creativity and decreased risk of major diseases. I love how empowered I feel every time I step outside to walk. I say no to my mental list of to do’s and yes to my inner puppy dog waiting patiently by the door with leash-in-mouth.
The Downside of Walking – Slips and Falls
Balance naturally decreases with age due to changes in depth perception, muscle mass, reflexes, and coordination. The National Institute of Health reports that one in three people over 65 will experience a fall each year. However, research on balance training suggests that practice can improve stability – both when standing (static balance) and walking (dynamic balance).
Reduce the Risks
Slips and falls result in one million emergency room visits annually. Common causes include; wet and uneven surfaces, weather conditions, and improper training.
Fall prevention strategies frequently include keeping your muscles strong. Equally important, I believe, are trail awareness training, and joint flexibility, especially in hips, knees, ankles and feet.
For example, the ankle is now being described by researchers as the body’s steering wheel. “The bones of the foot are unique in that they need to be both extremely flexible allowing the foot to point, twist and flex, but in other positions they need to be absolutely rigid, such as pushing off or jumping so the person doesn’t sprain their ankle.”
We also need flexible hips that work independently of each other, like our shoulders, so they can be sensitive to changing terrain. We have 200,000 nerve endings in each foot, more than anywhere else in our bodies, but shoes and flat sidewalks have tended to deaden kinesthetic awareness of ground contact.
Fall Prevention Exercises
Practice the three exercises below to help you integrate your visual (eyes), vestibular (inner ear), and proprioceptive (feedback from muscles and joints) systems for more responsive balance.
1. Eye Scan Technique – Looking down when you walk, for fear of falling, tenses your body decreasing blood and energy flow. For greater trail safety, use this technique borrowed from race car drivers.
Just as you’d scan the road ahead when driving, allow your eyes to scan the path ahead. With your head level, eyes at the horizon, lower your eyes to scan far to near, near to far, far to near… and continue. Look around to enjoy your world then return to scanning. Feed your brain continuous trail data from changing perspectives. First practice this exercise standing, then while walking on flat sidewalks at slow speeds, then graduate to uneven terrain in different lighting conditions.
2. Uneven Hip Circles – Our cars have been engineered with independent suspension of the wheels for a smoother ride. Just as your shoulders can move separately of each other, ideally your hips can respond independently to trail conditions, like stepping off a curb. Try this exercise in bare feet.
Take a wide stance and imagine you are circling a hula-hoop around your abdomen. As you circle, turn your torso to face towards one leg then the other. Circle in both directions. Next, place one foot on a floor pillow and repeat the circling and turning. Before switching legs take a moment to notice the sensations. To challenge yourself further, if you feel safe, close your eyes and repeat the circling exercises. With eyes closed you cultivate channels of proprioceptive awareness from muscles and joints. Notice what you feel.
3. Ankle Circles – Flat cement sidewalks and treadmills are modern inventions that dampen our awareness of the ground. As we age, ankles and feet stiffen if not exercised and fluids more easily accumulate in our legs. Walk flat footed and notice it’s harder to walk and less energizing. This type of walk looks and feels very old.
Stand safely on one leg and point the toe of the other foot to the ground. Circle your ankle in one direction then the other. Move the circling all the way up your leg through the knee and let your hips get into the action. Stop and notice the sensations, then switch legs. When walking, practice on uneven terrain to cultivate foot, ankle, and hip flexibility for a more flexible and independent you.