This post from 2013 was edited, updated, and expanded in 2020. This is one out of a handful of our favorite articles on walking, including topics covering what various “walking parts” do as well as other whole-body considerations. Find the rest of them in the walking section of Our Favorite Feet, Footwear, and Walking Resources.
Writing a book has forced me into more stillness than I’d like, so I’m taking a temporary break from blogging (as you can see, HAHA). I’ve also been walking more. More walking and more writing means I'm doing less laundry and that my house is a total disaster. But the good news is, I feel great, despite my work load.
I’m working on a section of the book about walking. It’s a tough one, because terms that we all take for granted—the word walking, for example—aren't defined as specifically as they need to be when discussing the actual physical act of walking. Say, for example, a person goes out and walks along a paved road to the store. Or, that same person walks along a dirt path to the store. Or say they cut through giant fields of grass, where there is no path, and continue up a hill...to the store. Say in each of these cases, the mileage covered is exactly the same. Does this mean that the walking in each scenario impacted their body in the same way? No, it doesn't. Walking can be executed an infinite number of ways, each creating a particular pattern of use and adaptation. And what about being shod or unshod? A hiking boot vs. a Vibram?
Each variable I’ve listed here (hillage, terrain, footwear) impacts the loads created by walking, which means the joints and muscles used are different in each of these cases. The resulting body is different in each of these cases. The energy utilized is different in each of these cases. To say “I walked,” “I walked 3 miles,” or "I walked 3 miles in 42 minutes" gives little data about how the body was actually used to accomplish the task of walking.
Anyway. That’s what I’m working on, and trying to explain all the variables that affect how walking impacts the body takes a lot of energy. Much like walking—a particular way of walking—can.
I swiped a paragraph from my writings [KB note: this text below eventually became part of Move Your DNA]:
"There are two general ways terrain can vary: grade (uphill, downhill and how much of either) and surface (rough, slippery, bumpy, rocky, hole-y, etc.). Every unique combination of grade and surface results in a particular physical stimulation. When comparing the endless number of joint contortions and muscle-contraction counterparts that come with wildly varying terrain to the single, repetitive pattern of joint ranges of motion and muscle contractions we actually use, it is clear, quantitatively, that the physical outcomes born of our walking habits can be thought of as repetitive use injuries."
(Don’t judge my spelling and grammar. I have an editor, thank goodness. Hopefully you get the idea.)
Then this comment-conversation ensued:
FBC: Great, just when I thought I had it made living in a city where I walk everywhere! Darn sidewalks...
KAB: There's the rub! It's not just a quantity problem. It's also question of quality. A lot of the same thing can lead to the same problems as a little of something!
FBC: My wheels are still turning about this one. What are urbanites to do?
When people reach out to me about what they feel their limitations to movement are, I go in to solve mode. So here's what I came up with.
We humans, and most animals, really, tend to take the path of least resistance. My official suggestion is to Stop That. Instead of going farther or faster on flat and smooth, challenge more of your body by going off the beaten path. Go sideways. Go up. And over.
If this feels too severe, how about veering off the road a couple of inches and just walk on the grass next to the path.
You don’t need to to leap out of your comfort zone right away. Just recognizing that you are a comfort-zone- lovin’ fool is enough for now.
If you're stuck in a sidewalk city, or if you've logged most of your walking hours on flat, you can do some indoor work to mobilize your ankles, knees, feet, and hips.
There is, of course, more to do, but I've got to get it all out in an organized, robust way (read: the book). Until then, see if you can break the "convenient walking" habit. Walking on modern surfaces is easy on the body and lets a whole lot of you atrophy. Think outside the exercise box. It's not about making EASY more intense (going harder or longer doing exactly the same thing). Let EASY go and welcome in SIMPLY COMPLEX.
P.S. All you parents out there struggling with walking at a snail's-I-mean-kid's pace, keep this in mind: You can make it harder without speed or distance. Think outside the trail.
Start carrying stuff. And I don't mean the jackets, the snacks, the backpack, and the kids themselves. I mean, you have to carry those things too, but consider carrying some other stuff as well.