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  • Writer's pictureBeth Abney

What You Don't Know About Walking and Pain

By now we all know walking is good for us. In a world full of fitbits and people trying to “get in their steps”, it’s clear that walking is essential to health.

Did you know that not all walking surfaces are created equal? In fact, the surfaces we are most accustomed to, like floors and sidewalks, are part of the reason we have pain and dysfunction?

Wait. What?

Have you ever taken a beach vacation? You were so excited to spend your days walking in the sand, but you soon learned walking in the sand is hard! Maybe your feet got tired quickly, or your knee hurt or your back started bothering you.

This happens because sand is an unstable surface that’s not level, and you’re accustomed to walking on smooth, flat stable surfaces.

Our bodies are designed to be upright and in motion. Our feet light on the ground so that they can sense the difference in terrain beneath them. The feet feel the ground and send a message to the brain letting it know what you’re dealing with. Then the brain sends a signal back down to your feet and all the parts in between about how they need to organize themselves. All this happens at lightning speed, without much awareness of the process, every step of the way.

So what happens when we spend years walking in shoes on smooth floors and sidewalks?

Each step becomes predictable and exactly the same. We become heavier on our feet because we don’t need the sensitivity required to sense differences in terrain. We no longer have to make small movements and adjustments with our feet, ankles, knees or back with each step. Everything does the same thing every time, and this pattern of movement becomes habitual no matter what surface we walk on.

What's Wrong with that?

  • Your coordination decreases.

  • The flexibility in your feet decreases.

  • You loose mobility in your knees and your SI joints in your low back.

  • Your ankles become less stable.

  • Your reflexive ability to right yourself when you misstep becomes slower.

This is all the result of your joints not having to make lots of micro movements as you’re walking. If each step is the same, fewer types of movements are made. Once you stop making certain movements, they become more difficult to perform.

What to do about it

Logging hours walking in the sand when you never leave the sidewalk is not a good plan. Your body simply isn’t conditioned for that sort of activity, but it needs to be. Not just for that beach vacation, but to keep your joints healthy and your coordination strong!

If you normally take a walk on the sidewalk, try alternating between the sidewalk and the grass every few minutes.

Start by staying mostly on the sidewalk, but periodically walk in the grass for just a minute or two.

Slowly work up to more time off the pavement.

Now I’m not suggesting trampling your neighbor’s lawn. There is plenty of public green space you can try this on, or you can simply spend time walking around your own yard every day.

What other surfaces can you find to walk on? A gravel driveway? A sand volleyball court? The mulch in the playground? A trail through the woods? There’s a world of options.

As always, progress slowly. Your body is relearning how to do these tasks. Give it a chance to get better at this skill before adding more time. The goal is to improve your coordination and decrease the amount of pain you have, so don’t overdo it. Practice a little every day, and you’ll find that each day it becomes a little easier.


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