"Your gait reveals a lot"
When we traipse around the house or step out for a stroll, most of us don’t think twice about putting one foot in front of the other. For many people, it’s a given to take the ability to walk (and to walk well) for granted. That is, until something goes wrong. Then we develop a newfound appreciation for our former ambulatory prowess.
Your walking style can reflect a host of physical, physiological, neurological, and even psychological influences and problems. “Your gait reveals a lot,” says Jessica B. Schwartz, a physical therapy specialist. “I see health issues manifested not only in my patients’ steps, but among the general public when I see people walking in a mall or airport,” says Dr Schwartz.
So, wonder what your walking style can reveal about your health? We spoke with medical experts who share how certain walking styles can shed light on specific health conditions.
Favouring one leg when bearing the weight and impact of each step suggests that a joint injury is present. This can come from structural problems like a muscle strain, sprained ligaments, a torn meniscus, or other damaged joint structures, arthritis, leg length differences or foot problems. And it can get worse because an off-balance stride affects other body parts, too.
“The body is amazing at creating compensation mechanisms for ailments of the lower extremity,” says Dr Henry C. Hilario, a foot and ankle surgeon. “Some patients may have always had one leg that is shorter but might only notice it later in life as their body’s compensation over time, eventually wears joints out faster and contributes to back-, hip-, knee- and foot pain. The foot and ankle also compensate for being flatfooted or having a high instep which can then lead arthritis later in life.”
If pain in your lower extremities becomes chronic and actually alters your gait, it’s important to get help. “The causes of limping can be evaluated and treated by a skilled physical therapist,” adds Dr Schwartz.
“Age can be tied to how fast or slow a person’s walks,” says Dr Hilario. Lower body muscles like the glutes tend to weaken with age, according to a 2017 study published in BMC Geriatrics. Also, the fast-twitch muscle fibres in the lower body can decline, suggests a 2013 study in Experimental Gerontology. Together, these two things may result in a loss of power and, therefore, slower walking.
“Someone with obesity or pain from joint injuries or osteoarthritis tends to walk slower as well,” adds Dr Schwartz. “With obesity, a person may have a wider stance and spend a longer time in each phase of the stepping motion since transferring the excess body weight quickly can be more difficult, especially if a person is out of shape.”
Of course, walking, along with a nutrient-rich, lower-fat diet, is a great way to help a person who’s obese to lose weight if done frequently enough and for long enough.