By Rich Valdez
Walking - it’s such an automatic, everyday thing to do that we never give it much thought. Well, maybe we should start paying it more attention because science says the way we walk may provide clues about our physical health or mental state. Many roads on Boracay have been improved and there’s far less dangerous obstacles and holes than before. It’s now more practical and safe to walk around, and for many, has now become a pastime.
Great news if you’re a fast walker: you’ll probably live longer, and not just because you have lower odds of getting hit by a bus! A 2011 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association on folks aged over 65 found that fast walkers (at least one meter per second) tended to outlive slowpokes. Because walking puts multiple organ systems to work (heart, lungs, circulatory, nervous, and musculoskeletal), gait speed is a summary indicator of vitality, and hence a good predictor of longevity. Even worse news for slowpokes is that it can’t be reverse-engineered; you can’t force yourself to walk faster and expect to live longer.
If you tend to veer to the left as you walk, you probably have a lot on your mind. A 2016 study in the journal Cognition found that blindfolded volunteers who were asked to walk straight veered more to the left the more anxious or stressed they felt. This finding dovetailed with 2010 research cited by the study which found that when people were asked to relive a stressful situation in their minds, those with high self-esteem tended to be spatially right-oriented and those with lower self-esteem tended to favor the left. The findings have a biopsychological basis; our right brain works harder when we’re stressed, having a contralateral effect on the left side of the body.
Toddlers normally start with tippy-toe steps before walking upright, but if it persists as they grow older, it may signal ambulatory “mechanical trouble.” According to several Mayo Clinic studies, it may mean that your child’s Achilles tendons are too short, making it uncomfortable when the heels touch the ground, or it could be something more serious like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. It has also been linked to certain types of autism. The comforting news is that there are remedies such as ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) braces to stretch tendons and muscles over time, or Botox shots to weaken tight or overactive leg muscles.
When we’ve had too much alcohol to drink, it impairs our brain’s ability to coordinate movement as well as our sense of orientation - bad not just for driving, but even just for walking around. The bad news for habitual heavy drinkers is that one day you might find yourself walking “drunk” even when you haven’t had a drop. Long-term alcohol abuse leads to cognitive impairment, muscle weakness, brain fog, and loss of sense of orientation that can all result in an ungainly, uneven or stumbling walk even when sober. The good news is that you can regain your old poise by giving up booze and allowing your brain time to fix itself.
When you have to raise one or both feet higher than normal as if you’re climbing an invisible stair as you walk, you probably have “foot drop.” This is a result of nerve damage that, in turn, could be symptomatic of a bigger problem. Foot-droppers have to take higher steps to avoid dragging their feet, resulting in slapping steps. It’s more common for one foot to be affected but it can happen to both. Doctors say it is usually due to nerve injury (usually the sciatic nerve) or a partial paralysis of certain muscles in the anterior portion of the lower leg. If you develop foot drop see a doctor at once, as it could indicate any of a number of serious conditions, including muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis.
It’s no hard-and-fast rule, but several studies suggest that a noticeable slowing down in walking pace or variations in stride might signal the onset of cognitive decline. Four studies, presented at an international conference on Alzheimer’s disease in Vancouver in 2012, all suggest that “gait disturbances” in older folks can be predictors of cognitive decline in old age, including Alzheimer’s. A slowing down in walking pace, it seems, is a common denominator in patients who went on to develop the disease or other memory problems. Again, it should be stressed that it’s just a tool that should be used in conjunction with other assessment tools; a slowdown in walking pace alone can be explained by many other things.
You may not be aware of it, but your mood shows in your step, and if you’re feeling down, your shoulders droop as if carrying invisible weights. Again, there is no hard-and-fast rule here, but psychologists say that taking slow, short steps could mean that the person is feeling the blues, possibly even suffering from depression. But the great news is that this one can be reverse-engineered, as they also say that we can lift our spirits by simply walking more briskly. Studies suggest that better posture and a faster pace actually help reroute our thoughts towards the positive. Happy feet, happy people!
This, on the other hand, is as bad as it sounds. If you’re over 60 and can’t help but drag and scrape your feet across the floor as you walk, experts say it could mean that your brain is having a hard time getting your leg muscles to move. It is most probably due to a nervous system disorder that affects movement, like Parkinson’s disease. Shuffling your feet in a bent-over posture with little or no arm movement as you walk is, in fact, known as “Parkinson’s gait.” Unfortunately, degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s have no cure as of yet, but the condition can be managed and its symptoms relieved with expert medical care.
Unsteady, Stiff, Twisted Walkers
If you find yourself walking more and more with difficulty like stiffness, loss of balance, taking swinging steps with the toes pointed inward or crossing knees (also called "scissoring"), or a loss of feeling in your feet such that it makes it difficult for you to know where the floor is, doctors say it could be symptomatic of something serious, like multiple sclerosis. MS is another degenerative disease that wreaks progressive havoc on the central nervous system, affecting movement. Sufferers are often unaware that they have the disease until signs such as difficulty walking start showing up.