DEAR DOCTOR K: I'd like to start walking more for exercise. Is there a "correct" way to walk in order to reduce the risk of injury?
DEAR READER: Walking comes so naturally to most of us that we may not even give a second thought to proper walking technique. But bad walking habits can lead to a host of problems.
What could be more natural than walking? We've been doing it since we were toddlers. It is natural, but in fact a complex series of things happens when we walk. First, your heel touches the ground, absorbing the impact of your weight. As the rest of your foot reaches the ground, your weight shifts forward to the ball of your foot and your toes.
Meanwhile, your arch partially flattens and the plantar fascia -- the ligament-like structure that connects the heel to the ball of the foot -- is stretched. Then your weight shifts again as you begin to rise on your toes and the ball of your foot, with the Achilles tendon lifting your ankle. Your body is propelled over that foot, with the weight passing onto the other foot.
Exercising your feet on a regular basis improves your overall foot health and may also reduce your risk for injury. The best overall foot exercise? Walking.
Before walking, take some time to stretch the muscles on the bottom of your feet:
-- Stand with feet together.
-- Step back with your left leg so your heel is raised and your toes press against the ground. You should feel the muscles on the bottom of your feet pull gently.
-- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
-- Repeat with your right foot.
I've put an illustration of this exercise on my website, AskDoctorK.com. It's also a good idea to stretch your legs and upper body in addition to your feet.
After stretching, hit the road, starting out slowly if it's the first time you've exercised in a while. And if it is the first time in a while, aim for 20 minutes three times a week, walking at a comfortable pace. Pick up the pace, time, distance and frequency gradually.
Here are some other tips to protect your feet:
-- Make sure your shoes provide enough support but allow your feet to "breathe."
-- Walk with your head up and your back straight. I hate to sound like your mother or your kindergarten teacher, but posture is really important when walking. If your posture is not good, your weight is distributed abnormally. Pressure is put on your leg joints, and your leg and low back muscles may be strained.
-- Start on level ground; work up to hills later.
-- Cool down after walking. You can do so with stretching exercises or, if you've been walking briskly, by walking at a slower pace.
We're fortunate that something so easy, natural and inexpensive as walking can improve our health. With a little attention to doing it right, you can get all the benefits without any complications.