Words on Fitness Walking
by Lawrence Gold Credentials | Publications | Personal Page
Hanna somatic education
The Rolf Method of Structural Integration
Fitness walking is the most accessible exercise for people of all ages. However, as people age, general physical problems tend to crop up - pain, stiffness, joint degeneration and loss of balance. This article undertakes to address those issues and to suggest how people might deal with (correct, not "get used to") them and get the most from a fitness walking program.
What interferes with people's staying with any exercise regimen (assuming they're motivated)?
The most basic, and most obvious answer is this: pain.
Old injuries (and pain associated with aging) interfere with all activities by making us not want to move and by draining our energy. So, let's start by addressing the question head-on.
Let's start at the beginning. The basic function of muscles is movement. However, muscles may also (and commonly do) interfere with movement when they get conditioned to stay tight at all times. Involuntary, improper movement patterns result. It's not just a matter of "not knowing how to move properly", as if you could just decide to do so and do so, thereafter. Movement patterns are acquired by learning and repetition.
Improper athletic training techniques often lead to acquired muscular tensions that are reinforced by continued training and athletic activity, itself. Young people also observe others, particularly family members, as their examples of how to move, and move that way for a lifetime. It's not exactly imitation, but a kind of contagion similar to how seeing a person yawn makes you want to yawn. Learned, improper (or poor) movement patterns make injury more likely.
Muscular tensions are also acquired by another kind of learning - the learning that injuries and stress provoke: people tighten up. The common guarding reaction against pain -- cringing - involves muscular tension, tension that can (and commonly does) last indefinitely. A lifetime of injuries and stress shows up as muscular tensions that accumulate as aging progresses.
Let me be clear about something: aging doesn't cause these muscular tensions; reactions to injury and stressful situations cause these muscular tensions, which then become habitual. The notion of "old injuries, old muscles" causing pain is a fallacy. What is behind the pain is "old tensions," still in place.
Tight muscles generate pain in three ways:
StiffnessThe term, "stiffness," describes the sense of extra effort required to move when muscles are no longer pliant, joints, no longer as flexible.
The term "stiffness", however, is not very informative about its causes or even about its actual nature.
Muscles do not and cannot become "stiff". They may become contracted, tight, but not "stiff". The only things muscles can do is tighten and relax. The tightness of one muscle or muscle group attached to a body part (e.g., upper arm) would interfere with opposing muscles that are attached to move the same body part. The feeling is of stiffness, but it is not the stiffness of muscles; it's the stiffness of movement due to muscular oppositions (called "co-contraction").
EXAMPLE: The biceps of the upper arm (which bends the arm at the elbow) opposes the triceps (which straightens the arm at the elbow). If the biceps and triceps become habitually tight, bending and straightening movements of the elbow feel stiff. The same is true of all other joints.
Another cause of stiffness is joint friction. In the healthy state, joints are lubricated by a super-slippery liquid, called synovial fluid, secreted by the cartilage of the joint. As people get older and fail to consume adequate amounts of water over a lifetime, their tissues, including cartilage, lose water. Synovial fluid decreases and thickens; internal friction makes joints stiffer.
Over-compression of a joint over time by over-contracted muscles leads to breakdown of the cartilage, further impairing its ability to generate synovial fluid. Inflammation, by the way, is the body's way of force-feeding fluid into parts of the body that need it. Dehydration and joint damage may therefore result in joint inflammation to support secretion of synovial fluid.
Tight muscles not only cause improper movement, but also cause joint breakdown and stiffness, which compounds improper movement.
Balance is largely a matter of freely adjusting pelvic movements, which control the position of the center of gravity. A freely moving pelvis, in turn, depends upon responsive and resilient musculature of the trunk and legs.
The oddity is that as people acquire muscular tensions and lose good balance, they do things like lean forward in the characteristic stooped posture of the aged. This action may be an attempt to minimize the distance between themselves and the ground, should they fall, but it actually predisposes them to a fall by shifting their weight forward of their center of support. It's a misguided effort. The most secure posture for balance is fully upright.
I'm not going to go into a discussion of posture, here, because posture follows from muscular control and coordination, and the techniques for cultivating muscular control and coordination take more than a few words of advice; they involve specific training.
Instead, I'm going to address some of the common forms of improper movement that lead to pain, stiffness, joint degeneration, and poor balance, and then speak of the form of training that can correct them.
That's a matter of habituation -- how a person learned movement, the degree to which they refined it through practice into good coordination (grace), and how injuries of the past have left impressions on the nervous system that cause guarding reactions that affect movement.
Note that balance is maintained in walking by opposite-and-balancing turning movements of the chestand-pelvis. These opposing movements involve a twisting action controlled by the muscles of the waist. The shoulders and arms follow the turning movements of the chest; the legs follow the turning movements of the pelvis (hips). This kind of movement is the basis of the saunter.
When a person swings his or her arms, s/he often does so as a substitute for that twisting movement at the waist; s/he does what I call, "the refrigerator walk," a term that makes sense if you've ever watched someone walk a refrigerator across the floor, which moves as a single block. How labored that is!
When shoulders and chest are thus immobilized, excessive muscular effort is needed at the hip muscles to swing the legs forward and back. This excessive effort conditions those muscles to get abnormally tight, which in turn compresses the hip joints and leads the hip joint replacement surgery. In addition, tight hip joint muscles (flexors and extensors of the legs) limit movement, slow walking speed and increase the labor of walking. Proper twisting at the waist is essential for long-term health of the hip joints.
I've oversimplified this discussion a bit to make a point. Now, I'll add back Words on Fitness Walking what has been subtracted: the proper application of arm swinging. In leisurely walking (strolling), the arms hang freely; the more vigorous the stride, the more the arms and shoulders engage to add power to the stride. The momentum of the arms, shoulders, and chest pass through the center of the body to the pelvis and legs with each new step to help move the hips and legs, which brings us to the next error of form:
In the natural strolling pattern, arms hang freely and move in a pendular rhythm with overall body movement. In the natural saunter, arms and shoulders, now moving like a powered pendulum, contribute to movement.
In vigorous walking, arms and shoulders continuously recycle the momentum of the hips and legs by switching directions quickly, front to back and back to front. The arms and shoulders are not passive, but active, as movement pumps. Bent elbows shorten the effective length of the arms, known in physics as "the moment arm," (for those who know physics). Perhaps it would be better called, "the momentum arm," for the shorter the effective length, the less momentum is stored and retransmitted to the pelvis and legs.
Bent elbows contribute to the habit of immobilizing the muscles of the waist by reducing the effect of the upper body upon the lower body. Although the bent-elbow technique is preferred among seasoned fitness walkers, an alternate, straight arm technique efficiently passes momentum from the upper body to the lower while encouraging the twisting movements at the waist essential for fluidity and balance.
Stretching hamstrings, for example, causes knee instability, which causes instability higher up in the body, which in turn interferes with balance and reduces the power available for walking.
Because we move as a whole and maintain our balance by good coordination, coordination is more important than isolated stretching of muscles. People need to think, instead, in terms of control. The control I speak of is control of movement, which also involves the ability to relax muscular tensions instilled by years of injuries and stress and to coordinate movements efficiently. Coordination is something that stretching can't develop.
I will introduce the alternative later on. For now, let's just say that there is a self-training process that can easily and lastingly eliminate the accumulated tensions of a lifetime without stretching, and thereby accomplish the goal of stretching, which is flexibility, and more: better coordination.
Efforts to breathe deeply often end up becoming shallow chest breathing. A better way to breathe deeply is to exhale fully, then let inhalation occur on the rebound. As an experiment, try exhaling and stay exhaled until you feel the need to inhale. Then, let yourself inhale. Feel the difference.
Shoulders go up under oxygen starvation, as in athletic effort. It's an attempt to get more air when abdominal breathing is blocked by tight abdominal muscles and tight intercostal (rib) muscles.
Raised-shoulder breathing is no substitute for free breathing.
The protruding belly is usually a sign not that the belly muscles are too soft, but that the back muscles are too tight. Those muscles bend the spine into a curve like that of an archer's bow; the belly naturally protrudes forward.
Another consequence of tight calves: tight hip joint flexors. The reason: lacking spring in the step to help propel the leg forward, the walker must overuse their hip flexors, which get conditioned to be tight.
Such an instruction is necessary for people who have:.. drop-foot or tight calf muscles.. tight hamstrings
Drop-foot is a neurological condition of weakness or flaccidity of the shin muscles. However, if tight calf muscles are involved, the correct instruction would be to retrain those muscles to be more responsive to free the foot for lifting.
If the involved muscle groups are not retrained, the exercise as described may lead to excessive arm motion in an attempt to help the leg movements made laggard by contracted muscles.
Hip rotation depends upon free and responsive muscles of the waist. This exercise seeks to cultivate responsiveness of those muscles.
There is a tendency among people who don't have freedom and responsiveness at the waist to tighten the hip flexors too much to bring the leg forward in stride. That can lead to excessive muscle fatigue and joint compression.
Free hip movement proceeds in rhythm with chest/shoulder movements, but only if hip flexors are free and the waist muscles responsive.
This is an exercise for the muscles of the inner thighs (the adductors). It is helpful for cultivating balance, as those muscles help control sidebending (through coordination with the trunk muscles) and leg positioning.
ADDED INSTRUCTION: Feel and squeeze with the inner thigh muscles of the rear leg to help the forward leg to cross over the line. Stay erect.
This is an exercise that assists swinging of the arm, shoulders and chest, when synchronized with the walking rhythm. It depends upon free shoulder musculature.
People whose chest muscles are tight find this exercise impossible to do as described; they can't bring their arms behind them. Again, stretching won't help much, as those muscles are in the grip of a tension pattern maintained by the brain that must be unlearned before the muscles will fully relax and lengthen.
This conditioning exercise develops speed of movement. It depends upon good balance and freedom of the hip musculature from excessive muscular tension.
This conditioning exercise seeks to cultivate longer stride and full foot contact with the ground. It depends upon freedom of the hip flexors (front hip joint muscles) and of the calves from excessive tension and upon responsiveness of the calf muscles (for spring in the step).
This exercise has the effect of damping out momentum that might otherwise be transmitted between the upper and lower body. An unnatural movement pattern not seen in agile individuals, cultivation of this movement pattern overworks hip flexors, impedes balance, and slows movement.
It might be used temporarily to cultivate hip movement in individuals who use a lot of arm and shoulder movement in walking, but the tendency to immobilize the pelvis during stride would defeat that purpose.
The tendency automatically to move the arms and shoulders is an inherent movement pattern built into the human design and should be cultivated, not interfered with or inhibited.
Walking backward prevents the usual habits of movement from taking over. It gives you practice in making full foot contact with the ground and improves your balance. Remember to alternate.
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