London - We’re continually told about the benefits of walking for the body and brain. But the way you walk can be an indicator of underlying conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and vitamin deficiencies.
Last month, US researchers found that slow walking can indicate cognitive decline, which may be a precursor to Alzheimer’s.
Here, leading experts reveal what the way you walk says about your health:
SWAGGERING OR A WOBBLING BOTTOM
May indicate: Weak bottom muscles, leading to back and leg problems.
If you wiggle like a supermodel, you could be headed for back pain. When we walk, run or lunge, we use a small muscle in the bottom called the gluteus medius, which keeps the pelvis stable and the leg straight. A sedentary lifestyle can leave this weak.
“So when you take a step forward, the bottom wobbles from side to side as the muscles are relaxed,” says Dr John Outhwaite at the London Orthopaedic Clinic.
“Swaggering” creates a twist through the back, which can become stiff and painful.
There are various exercises that can strengthen the gluteus medius and Pilates can help, says Cheyne Voss, head of physio-therapy at TenPhysio, London.
“Another tip to see how you should be walking is to squeeze together the buttock cheeks as you walk, as if you were trying to hold a £50 note in between them.
“Obviously don’t do it all the time as you would look a bit daft, but it does stabilise the pelvis.”
May indicate: Shorter life expectancy, diabetes, arthritis, risk of dementia.
Do you zip to the shops faster than Road Runner? It’s a sign your body is functioning well, says Dr Tony Redmond, academic podiatrist at the University of Leeds and senior research fellow at Arthritis UK.
“Someone who is young, fit and healthy will, on average, walk between 1.2 and 1.4 metres per second.
“But even if you have relatively mild arthritis or other aches and pains, walking speed will start to fall off. Those with arthritis tend to be below one metre a second, or if very bad, 50cm a second.”
Your walking speed may predict how long you’ll live, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. In a review of 36,000 people over 65, they found those who walked slower than 2ft per second (1.36 miles per hour) had an increased risk of dying, while those who walked faster than 3.3ft per second (2.25 miles per hour) survived longer than would be predicted by age or gender.
Meanwhile, researchers from Boston Medical Centre who studied people in their early 60s for a decade found those with a slower walking pace were 1½ times more likely to develop dementia.
Slower walking speed was associated with fewer grey cells (neurons that carry out most of the brain’s processing) and poorer performance on memory, language and decision-making tests.
May indicate: Limited ability to orgasm, osteoarthritis, muscle damage from high heels.
A short stride can indicate osteoarthritis in the hip, as one or both hips cannot swing as far as it once could. If you’re a woman, it could also be a hang-up from your high heel habit, says Cheyne Voss.
“If you have tight hamstrings or calves - a common cause is wearing high heels too often - the leg won’t be able to stretch out so far.
“Also certain knee problems will prevent a person from straightening fully, meaning it will be harder for the person to strike the ground heel first, causing a limp and shortened stride length.”
Meanwhile, a study in the Journal Of Sexual Medicine found that women who had orgasms from sexual intercourse had a longer stride. The Belgian and Scottish researchers suggest so-called “blocked” pelvic muscles, which might be associated withpsychosexual impairments, could impair the ability to have a vaginal orgasm.
LACK OF ARM SWING
May indicate: Back, neck and shoulder problems.
When we walk, we swing the arm on the opposite side to the leg that is striding to support the lower back - the arm attaches to the lower back by a muscle called the latissimus dorsi. But a limited range of movement in the shoulders or back can impair this process. If one shoulder rolls freely and the other is more awkward or stuck, that can indicate a back or neck problem, which tends to occur after years of a sedentary lifestyle.
May indicate: Osteoarthritis, heavy handbag, plantar fasciitis.
Limping with the pelvis dropped on one side can be a classic sign of an osteoarthritic hip. (Many people with this condition also have a slightly bowlegged walk because the hips can’t comfortably take the body’s weight).
However, it can also be a sign you’re overloading your handbag, says Dr Richard Jones, senior lecturer in clinical biomechanics at the University of Salford.
“A heavy bag on the right shoulder will compress that side of the body and over time cause the left leg to be longer (as the other leg is compressed).”
This, plus the spine being curved, is likely to put increased stress on the lower back, leading to pain.
Limping or not wanting to put weight on the heel is a classic sign of plantar fasciitis - where the thick tissue on the bottom of the foot becomes inflamed.
PROBLEMS WITH STAIRS
May indicate: Bunions, osteoarthritis of the knee.
A classic early warning sign of bunions - sore bumps on the side of the big toe - is pain while walking up and down stairs barefoot, even if there is no sign of a bunion forming, says consultant podiatrist Mike O’Neill, of the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists.
“The pain signals indicate there are already erosive changes developing in the joint. As the big toe bends going up and down stairs, the surfaces of the joints are grinding together, causing pain.”
May indicate: Vitamin B12 deficiency, uncontrolled diabetes.
When our feet touch the ground, they send the brain signals about the position of the limb in a phenomenon called proprioception.
“Impaired proprioception can occur due to loss of sensation and it can cause an unco-ordinated gait as the person will be unaware of the position of their lower limbs,” says consultant podiatrist Haydn Kelly of the London Medical Centre in Harley Street.
Sufferers lift the foot and leg very high and then slam it to the ground in order to know where the feet have landed.
Conditions that cause a loss of sensation in the feet include diabetes and vitamin B12 deficiency as they damage the nerves that control movement. Symptoms include numbness and/or tingling of the extremities, muscle weakness and disturbed co-ordination.
FOOT SLAPPING ON THE GROUND
May indicate: Uncontrolled diabetes, sciatica, motor neurone disease, stroke.
In drop foot, a person loses control of the muscles in their leg, and when walking they have to lift their knee higher than normal to prevent the foot dragging along the ground.
It may be seen in people with uncontrolled diabetes, as this can cause a type of nerve damage called motor neuropathy, affecting the nerves that send signals to the muscles in the legs to carry out movements.
Stroke and motor neurone disease can also damage or weaken these muscles, as can sciatica - irritation/compression of the sciatic nerve (which runs from the lower back down the leg).
May indicate: Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurologic disorder, in which a deficiency of a brain chemical called dopamine leads to loss of the ability to control your muscles and movement.
The disease has a classic shuffling gait, says Haydn Kelly. Patients may also develop a forward or backward lean and may have falls that cause injuries. - Daily Mail