At first glance, this title probably threw you off. I mean, a guide to walking? Are we moderns really that dysfunctional that we can’t even walk correctly? C’mon, Sisson – you must be out of ideas.
Bear with me, here.
It may seem silly to need a definitive guide to walking, but I think we do. First off, walking is no longer necessary for basic everyday survival. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, the average person reading this blog can get by just fine without walking more than a couple hundred yards each day. Whether via buses, trains, cars, bikes, or delivery services, you’re not going to starve or die of thirst just because you don’t or can’t walk. I’ll argue that walking is an essential human activity that we ignore to our ultimate detriment, but millions of people do exactly that and think nothing of it. Progress? In a wider societal sense, sure. But on an individual level, people still need to walk.
Second, because walking is no longer “necessary,” we – the general, inclusive “we,” not necessarily the Vibram-clad elite – have forgotten how, when, where, and why to walk. Our technique is shot, we lack proper scope (a mile sounds daunting), we don’t even think to make time for regular walking for walking’s sake, and walking is seen as the last resort to be employed only when the tire’s busted, the train isn’t running, or the bus is late. Kids don’t walk home from school anymore (what, with all the lurking pedophiles?), people hop in the car to run down to the corner market.
I don’t always like to pull the “Grok logic” card, because it doesn’t always apply to our current situation. Here, though? Yeah. It makes sense, so pull it I shall. Walking is our birthright. The weird way we humans do it – obligatorily upright, hands free to wield tools and weapons, harsh sunlight coming at us from an angle instead of head on, relatively generous glutes making the whole production go – gives us a survival advantage. Well, it gave us enough of one to help us blanket the globe with funny shaped footprints. And our feet aren’t exclusive to homo sapiens: a 1.5 million-years old homo ergaster footprint preserved in Kenyan mud reveals that hominids have been using essentially the same feet and the same stride for hundreds of thousands of years. That means that before our big complex brains hit the scene, the same feet you enjoy today were stomping mud and carrying our distant ancestors around. These feet are millions of years in the making. I’d say that’s a pretty good track record, and I think it’d be a shame if you didn’t utilize them.
Grok walked a lot. Heck, he walked everywhere. Riding animals didn’t appear until after the agricultural revolution, so unless you buy into the ancient aliens theory, you accept that our paleolithic ancestors relied on self-ambulation to get around. It seems pretty plausible to suggest that we’re probably well-adapted to walking on a regular basis. I’d even go so far as to posit that walking might even be highly beneficial to our health and well-being. Given our extensive history with the activity, you might even say our genes “expect” us to walk.
What does the evidence show? Surprise, surprise: walking is good for you and enacts multiple beneficial changes in our bodies. To name a few:
- Kids who walk to school are fitter than peers who do not.
- Older healthy adults who walk briskly live longer than those who don’t.
- Healthy adult males who engage in short bouts of brisk walking experience lower resting blood pressure and postprandial triglycerides.
- Regular walking improves working memory in older adults.
- Walking improves longevity in women over 70 years of age.
- Walking programs improve cognitive ability in people with Alzheimer’s.
I could go on but I won’t. Suffice it to say, walking is overall a healthy activity. I don’t think there’s any disputing that. Besides, droning on about the physiological benefits of walking detracts from the real reason I want you to walk so much: it’s an enjoyable way to get out, move, be active, and experience the world.
Despite it being our birthright and really healthy and all that jazz, many of us would be well served with some walking technique tips. Note that I don’t condone the usage of bulky, heel-centric shoes, so all technique tips given assume that you are barefoot or in minimalist shoes with minimal to zero heel drop. Sorry, but that’s just how I roll.
The Leisurely Stroll
This is the everyday walk you use when walking to the farmers’ market, through the mall, or down to the watering hole across relatively flat ground. Lead with the heel, a straight but not locked leg, touch down briefly and lightly before transferring the weight onto the balls of your feet. What you get is a smooth rolling sensation. Check to make sure your glutes are firing by walking with hands on cheeks. You should feel your glutes tense up with each step. In public, this looks suspect, so do the self-assessment from the comfort of your own home. This is not heel-striking, which is a running style characterized by repeatedly slamming one’s heel into the ground to the ultimate detriment of one’s lower extremities. This is heel-touching, and it’s far less abrasive.
When you’re hunting something or making your way across an uneven landscape dotted with rocks, sticks, and (like, maybe, you’re hiking off trail) other bits, use the stalk. Keeping your knees slightly bent at all times, walk by focusing on the balls of your feet. Your heels will touch, but your midfoot lands first. Take shorter steps than you would when heel-touching.
Land fore/midfoot first. Touch down with the heel and engage your glutes to propel you upward. Repeat with other foot.
I like landing with my entire foot. Maybe the heel hits first, but I try to land with my whole foot. Walking downhill is an exercise in stopping yourself from hurtling downward, so this can get tough. Absorb the impact with your hips by keeping the weight on your heels, rather than your toes.
Whichever method of walking you use, always keep your torso on top of your hips. Stay upright (you’re a biped, so act like it!). A floppy torso that bends and sways throws off your balance and wastes valuable energy. Stay tall.
In my experience, it’s the easy, seemingly inconsequential stuff that’s the hardest sell. The crazier, more unconventional stuff gets all the attention. Tons of people get out there and do heavy squats, order grass-fed cows, buy the latest Vibram model, learn to love liver, and proudly stride barefoot into the grocery store – but they drove to get there. It’s the easy things, like walking regularly and often, that are somehow the hardest to do. They’re the easiest to ignore. Walking? Yeah, it’s nice, it’s relaxing, but it won’t put on the mass and elicit the hormonal response of a set of heavy deadlifts. It isn’t sexy.
Walking matters, folks. Big time. If we stop moving, even if we’re standing at our desks and hitting the gym every other day, we’re dying. We’re telling our bodies that we’ve given up, that it’s okay to shut down, that all those millions of years of daily, constant walking were an aberration, a mistake, a fluke. That’s folly. I think you know it, but I don’t know if you know it.
So get moving – starting tomorrow. Wake up ten minutes early tomorrow and use that extra time to walk around the block. Practice the different walking techniques. Go barefoot. Feel the ground beneath you. Enjoy the still dewy blades of grass slipping between your toes. Feel the serrated edges stimulate those long-dormant nerves. Ignore the mythical broken glass, infected syringes, and rusty nails littering the ground and welcome the occasional uncomfortable rock digging into your sole. It happens, but that’s life, and it’s okay. Just keep it moving and leave it all behind.
Do you take time out of your schedule to walk? Should you? Do you have better things to do? Let us know how you incorporate walking into a world where walking is a leisure activity!
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