My 90-year young Grandmother is spunky and energetic. She goes to the Y every day for water aerobics, bakes batches and batches of cookies, cooks homemade Italian meals and manages to keep up with her 4 sons and all of her grandchildren! Whew! I’m tired just thinking about it. Although she still can perform all her daily activities, she’s starting to shuffle her feet and lean a bit forward when walking.
You can argue that age has something to do with this less-than-optimal posture, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Over time, if not managed properly with exercise, it is common for the muscles around the hips and ankles to weaken and/ or become shortened as our bodies adapt try to stabilize us and give in to poor postural habits. The leaned-forward position and the shuffling of the feet may be associated with age, but poor postural habits resulting in muscle imbalance are likely the root cause.
Although a thorough assessment would allow me to better determine the cause of my grandmother’s recent shuffling gait, I’d like to suggest some common causes and ways you can begin to interrupt this process in yourself, if this profile sounds familiar.
The hip flexor muscles, located in the front or your hips (or in your “hip creases”) tend to get tight in many of us as we become less active and sit more. When these muscles shorten, they tend to bend you forward at the hips, causing you to adopt a forward lean when walking or standing. As a result, the muscles of your butt may become deactivated, which sets you up for back fatigue, back pain, and eventually back injury (see Amanda’s November article.) Walking with a forward lean will start to create trouble with your balance. The body will likely compensate by tightening your calves, thereby stiffening the ankles to give you some “stability.” As you can see, one adaptation leads to another, until much of your body is not performing its job correctly, and your walking pattern is affected.
Try this stretch to open up your hips:
½ Kneeling Stretch: Kneel on padded surface so that your right knee is over your heel, your left knee is under your hip. Curl your toes under and “squeeze your cheek” on the left leg. If you feel a stretch, stay here with the upper body vertical for 20-30 sec. If you don’t feel a stretch, switch to having the left leg forward. Avoid leaning forward into more of a lunge, as this can take the stretch off the targeted muscles.
Try this exercise to strengthen your butt:
Clam Shell: Lie on your right side, with the head on a pillow to keep the head and neck neutral hips and knees aligned with the shoulder so that the body is in a straight line (knees are bent so the lower legs are behind you.) Exhale to press the right knee downward into the floor as you lift the left knee upward. Keep the pelvis stacked (don’t let it rock back as you press the left knee upward) and the feet together. Practice 2 sets of 5 per side without strain/ pain in the back.
Try this stretch to improve calf flexibility:
Calf Stretch: Holding onto a wall or counter top, place 1 foot forward and step the other foot back, keeping the feet straight. Press through the heel of the back foot and lean forward for the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds per side.
Although the above (simplified) scenario is one I commonly see, it is not meant to be a blanket explanation for all gait problems. To learn more about which exercises will get you back to confident, upright walking, please contact me at info@re-kinect .com. I’d be happy to take you through a thorough assessment and determine the exercises that will work best for you.