Watch Your Step
Because I’m a lifelong advocate of fitness walking and injury-free walking, I’m always trying to come up with the simplest way to get walkers to move along the ground in a way that produces the least amount of impact to the feet, knees, hips and lower back. The answer to this dilemma is different depending on whether you’re doing ChiWalking or ChiRunning. I’ll begin with you ChiWalkers.
When I watch people walk I’d conservatively estimate that over 90% of all walkers lock their leading knee as their heel touches the ground in front of them. The problem with this (and most people don’t know this) is that when your heel strikes the ground ahead of your center of mass, it creates a braking effect on your forward motion. So you’re essentially pushing yourself forward with your rear leg while you’re simultaneously stopping yourself with your leading leg. We call it “driving with the brakes on” and it’s not only an inefficient way to move down the road, but it can create long-term impact damage to your feet, knees, hips and lower back.
According to the Joint Implant and Surgery Foundation there are over 200,000 hip replacements performed in the U.S. every year! I was totally shocked at this number. Here’s a small section of an article on hip replacements that I’ve borrowed from the JISF.org website:
“Hip joint load is a function of body weight, activity level, muscular force, and the distance from the body’s center of gravity to the center of the femoral head. Publications have stated that the hip joint force increases up to 2.5 times body weight with speed in level walking.”
Let’s see… two and a half times my body weight is 290 lbs. That means that when I walk at any kind of speed on a level surface there’s a force of 290 lbs. going to each of my hip joints with every step I take. Now, if I’m reaching forward with my stride and locking my knee, that means that that same amount of force is also going into my heels (plantar fasciitis & ankle problems), my knees (300,000 total knee replacements each year according to the NIH), my hips (you’ve seen the numbers), and lower back (The U.S. spends $50 billion each year on lower back pain). You’d think that here in the 21st century we could come up with a way to prevent some of this. Well, there is something remarkably simple that you can do the next time you find yourself walking somewhere. Are you ready for this earth-shattering piece of inside information? OK, here it is….
Don’t lock your knees when you take a step forward. That’s right. It’s pretty simple. Just make sure your knees are always bent as your foot comes down onto the ground ahead of you. Here’s how you’ll be helping your hip joint specifically. When you lock your knee the impact of your footstrike travels in a direct line from your heel to your hip because all of your bones are lined up in a straight line. On the other hand, if you bend your knees, that impact is dispersed through your feet, ankles, and knees before it reaches your hip…and the resulting impact to your hip becomes almost negligible.
Of course, if you’re used to walking with your knees locked, this means a change in what is probably a longstanding habit. Remembering to do it is the hardest part, but it is much easier to do if you can remember to always work on walking with your posture well-aligned with your shoulders and head slightly forward of where you are used to carrying them. It’s just a very slight forward tilt of your upper body whenever you’re walking.
Another way to accomplish the knee bend when you walk is to shorten your stride and quicken your cadence. You’ll sense that you’re taking smaller, quicker steps, but your legs will feel very different as will the impact on your hips and knees. It might feel a bit strange at first, but if you go back and read the statistics about knee and hip replacements and think of the alternatives…you might be more willing to watch your step.