For a long time, before the advent of gyms and even today, walking is one of the most popular forms of exercise. The easiest and most enjoyable, hands down winner with no equipment needed, only willingness.
There is a lot of propaganda nowadays on the right kind of footwear, on trendy outfits to exercise, even water bottles that match to quench the thirst while walking. While it is true that the right kind of footwear may alleviate or mitigate certain symptoms, it is but a tool to make the walk comfortable. Great and in vogue as these paraphernalia sound, these are just additions which take away from the simple joy of walking carefree.
We take walking for granted. Have you ever found yourself thinking: “Now I must step forward with the right foot, now the left” or “I must place the right foot 6-8 inches forward,” or “I need to push with certain force to propel forward for the next perfect step?” They all sound absurd, don’t they? Yet your body knows exactly what to do when walking for equal steps every time. However what is also wonderful about the human being is the ability to bring any task into full awareness in a moment’s notice. So here is a physical therapists perspective on what is called “the gait” aka walk.
I bet all of you must have observed, walking consists of a pattern or a series of events that repeat themselves. This series of events from a certain point to the consecutive similar point is what constitutes the “gait cycle.” So for example, from the left heel making contact with the floor, to the next time the left heel comes into contact with the floor is one complete gait cycle or stride, and this keeps repeating itself for the duration of walk. Half of this cycle, that is from left heel strike (or contact), to right heel strike is a step.
Now it may seem like it is the legs that do most of the work during walking. This is only partially true. The trunk and upper body also play a big role to ensure that the body moves forward and stays in the forward facing direction all the time. While the pelvis turns, the trunk and shoulder girdle stabilizers are silently working to maintain a constant direction. The arms also swing to balance the forces generated in the lower limbs to make this possible. Phew! Who knew?? Maybe the next time you walk, your awareness of this profound activity will increase.
At all times while walking, one foot is always in contact with the ground. This is what makes walking a unique activity. There may be parts of the cycle when both feet are making ground contact. For example, when the left heel strikes the ground, the right foot is pushing off (this is an example of both feet in ground contact) and when the left foot is loading and accepting the body weight, the right foot is in swing phase (off the ground and hence an example of one foot in contact with the ground).
During one of my earlier posts and the presentation at New Seasons Market, I have mentioned the center of gravity of the body (COG) and the base of support (BOS) and the relationship between the two. Walking displays a wonderful working relationship between the two where the COG translates in a horizontal figure of 8 pattern, that is “∞”. This motion is extremely smooth and graceful, no jerks or sudden change in direction and it is in this smooth transition that an entire gait cycle is completed. Noteworthy is the fact that, even when one foot is pushing off and the other is simultaneously making heel contact, balance is maintained with utmost poise (grace) even though the BOS seems small and precarious (a few square centimeters only!). Ah! The reverence we now feel for this simple form of exercise is mind blowing.
Let us delve into further detail and look at one complete gait cycle. The foot in contact with the ground is in stance phase, the foot off the ground is in swing phase. These two occur simultaneously. Three main components of stance are:
1. heel strike or initial contact with ground
2. foot-flat or mid-stance also the phase in which load is
accepted by the leg
3. push off or terminal stance.
The swing leg is also going through three components:
1. early-swing, when the foot has just lifted off the ground
2. mid-swing, when the foot is smoothly sailing forward
3. terminal-swing, when the foot is preparing to make contact
with the ground.
Putting the two phases together, the left foot is in heel strike as the right foot is going from push-off (the double leg stance phase) to the pre-swing phase. As the left leg accepts the weight, the right leg is off the floor or in early swing (single leg stance phase) then into mid-swing as the body is propelled forward and in the final phase the left foot pushes off as the right foot enters from terminal swing and into heel strike. As observed earlier, there is a brief moment when both feet are in contact with the ground. This is half a cycle or step and is repeated on the contralateral side, that is the right foot is now in heel strike with the left foot entering swing phase from push-off and this repeats itself till the point where the left heel comes to strike once again, completing one stride or one complete gait cycle.
And this is just a very basic overview of the gait cycle. It may sound like a very romantic affair… and why not? Valentine’s Day is just round the corner. Fall in love with yourself, one step at a time, every time as you explore the wonder that you are with StableMovement Physical Therapy. For more information, find us at: www.stablemovement.com or call (408)252-8790.
Ami Gandhi is a licensed physical therapist in the state of California. She is the owner of StableMovement Physical Therapy, a small boutique practice in San Jose that offers patient centered, one-on-one, hands-on physical therapy.