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
Age affects how we walk
- 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:
- 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
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?
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
♦ 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:
These drills will guard your flexibility for fluid movement
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 hiking group such as the Ramblers and discover how to love walking for its own sake.