Way to walk

Unoccupied hiking boots on a lovely hillside after a hard day's walk, by David Maters

For many of us, this most nat­ural, won­der­ful way of get­ting about can turn into a source of fear, anxi­ety and pain in later life. But it’s not inev­it­able. Read on to find out more about how age affects walk­ing. Or click to jump to the sec­tions on the warn­ing signs of poor walk­ing and self-​help tips for stronger, safer­walk­ing

Click to jump to…
Is my walk­ing going down­hill?
Tips for bet­ter ways to walk

Age affects how we walk

Believe it or not, we all start to modify our ways of walk­ing as we get older. The reas­ons are com­plic­ated and not always well under­stood. But in gen­eral weRoad sign with hunched over old people crossing

  • walk more slowly,
  • take shorter strides, and
  • take more steps.

Some people develop a habit of walk­ing with their feet quite wide apart, oth­ers do the oppos­ite, tend­ing to walk with their feet on an ima­gin­ary tightrope.

And it’s very com­mon to see older people walk­ing hunched over, whether using a stick or not, with eyes glued to the ground in front of them and heads bent right for­wards. That hor­rible ‘little old lady’ pos­ture is about as age­ing as it gets.

Does it mat­ter?

Yes, how you walk really does mat­ter. Walking is basic to inde­pend­ent liv­ing, so once you start to become unsteady when you’re out and about, it’s a slip­pery slope to becom­ing house-​bound. Slow walk­ing, poor pos­ture and shuff­ling steps all increase your chances of tak­ing a trip, or worse, a fall.

Is this just down to get­ting older? In part, yes – though it’s cer­tainly not the whole story. Here, for instance are some other things that may subtly or sig­ni­fic­antly change your way of walk­ing:

• using a stick or walker

• habitu­ally wear­ing worn-​out, ill-​fitting or inap­pro­pri­ate foot­wear

• poor foot care, pain­ful corns, bunions etc

Pain and infirm­ity mess up walk­ing, too

It doesn’t need a lot of ima­gin­a­tion to under­stand how a pain­fully arth­ritic hip or knee can start to make you walk lop­sided. But a large num­ber of health prob­lems can cause subtle to major changes to ‘nor­mal’ walk­ing, includ­ing:

  • stroke
  • Parkinson’s and sim­ilar neur­o­lo­gical con­di­tions
  • chronic back pain
  • chronic shoulder or neck pain
  • visual impair­ment
  • foot deform­it­ies
  • impaired blad­der or bowel con­trol
  • dia­betic neuro­pathy (eg numb or pain­ful feet and legs)
  • foot or leg ulcers
  • balance-​related con­di­tions (Meniere’s, ver­tigo etc)
  • poor heart and lung func­tion
  • arth­ritic joints
  • stiff and swollen ankles
  • obesity

Then there’s the effects of med­ic­a­tions. Dizziness, swollen ankles and sud­den urgent needs to get to the loo are some of the com­mon side-​effects of drugs that can be haz­ard­ous for walk­ing.

So it’s down­hill all the way?

No. Regardless of whether you are cop­ing with a med­ical con­di­tion or bliss­fully free of them, the major­ity of older people develop poor walk­ing habits at least in part because of weak muscles, stiff joints and poor pos­ture. And all of these are things that you can improve, to help you walk more effi­ciently, con­fid­ently and safely.

Remember, too: a brisk daily walk is one of the best things you can do for your heart, your body and even your men­tal health. If you can keep on walk­ing, you’ll be able to cope with most of what life throws at you!

Is my walk­ing let­ting me down?

Age-​related changes to walk­ing habits tend to be subtle and long-​term, so you don’t always real­ise how much you’ve adap­ted your style. Do you recog­nise your­self in any of these state­ments?

‘I’m the slow­coach: my friends are always wait­ing for me to catch them up!‘
’The pave­ments here are a night­mare – I’m for ever catch­ing my toes on uneven pav­ings’
’Sure I trip over every now and then. Doesn’t every­one?‘
’I’ve had a couple of falls this year, but noth­ing ser­i­ous’
’Walking isn’t for fun, it’s a neces­sary evil’
’It’s obvi­ous that look­ing down at the ground is the safest way to walk’
’I hate catch­ing my reflec­tion in shop win­dows – they make me look depress­ingly old’
’It makes sense to hold on to the rail­ings while wait­ing to cross the road’
’I prefer to con­cen­trate when I’m walk­ing, so if I do have to talk or chat, I just stop and stand still’
’I avoid busy streets because these days other people never bother to get out of your way’

If this sounds like you – even a little bit like you – things are on the slide. Talk to your doc­tor, and read on below about how to start improv­ing the way you walk

Ways to walk bet­ter

Three women on a walk admire beautiful views in France, by SabrinaFollow these five pos­tural pos­it­ives:

Lengthen your spine, walk with the top of your head touch­ing the sky

Eyes down, not chin: keep your head level and bal­anced on top of your spine, using your eyes to glance at the path ahead

Shoulders back and down, relax, open your chest and let the air in

Gently draw in your lower abs to help sup­port your back and your bal­ance

Walk with a ‘heel-​toe’ action

These strength exer­cises will build the muscles and con­fid­ence to help you stride out:

Heel raises
Toe raises
Sit and stand
Hip wrap
The clam

These drills will guard your flex­ib­il­ity for fluid move­ment

Ankle loosen­ing
Calf stretch
Hamstring stretch
Chest stretch

And here are five paths to per­fec­tion…

Take the tread­mill for a walk

♦ Practise power-​walking

♦ Graduate to rough ground for increased bal­ance and strength chal­lenges

Join a ‘walk­ing for health’ group or Nordic walk­ing group for struc­tured exer­cise that will do won­ders for your over­all fit­ness

♦ Join a hik­ing group such as the Ramblers and dis­cover how to love walk­ing for its own sake.

Increase Text Size Increase Text Size

Comments are closed.