Gait, the therapist's term for the way you walk, is an integral part of your everyday life. Poor gait can cause cumulative trauma to your joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons. What can be even worse is exercising with an impaired gait, which increases your risk for damage such as sciatica, knee damage like an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear or ankle sprain. Less serious but still awkward: It can make you look klutzy on the treadmill at the gym. Pay attention to how you walk. Little changes can make a big difference, reducing your risk of injury and allowing you to stay young and fit as you exercise.
Evaluate Your Shoes
You may need to talk with a podiatrist, orthopedic doctor or physical therapist to fully assess your walking pattern. However, there are also some easy ways to check your gait. Check out soles of your workout shoes, particularly shoes you have used for three months or longer. Make sure your tennies are still cool and then examine the soles to see if the wear is even across the sole. For instance, if the inside of the sole is worn more than the outside, then you angle your feet inward. If the outer edge is worn, then you turn the base of your foot inward. If the heel is more broken down than the ball of the foot, this can indicate that you carry your center of balance back on your heel.
Check yourself out in a full length mirror in front of you as you walk on a treadmill. First make sure your hair still looks great -- then look at how you are walking. Place a piece of black electrical tape lengthwise down the center of the mirror, to divide the right side from the left side of your body, and then position the mirror so that your belly button is lined up along the center of the line. Observe your movements in the mirror as you walk, and see if any part of your body, or your body as a whole, moves in any way that is out of line.
Once you have figured out what is out of whack when you walk, continue to work out in front of a mirror. Observe yourself frequently and change the way you move your legs, torso and arms, or how you place your foot on the treadmill -- be careful not to get distracted and lose your balance, though. You may need to consult a therapist or orthotist to make customized shoes or inserts to fix the problem if you can't change it on your own. Once you can walk normally, slowly increase your speed until you are running and burning off those calories again.
Work on your balance to improve your walking pattern, using the back of a chair to keep your balance. Start by completing short squats, dropping three to six inches from the starting position and slowly returning to a stand, targeting your buns. Stand up on your toes over and over to shape your calves and improve your balance. Perform knee kicks by gently lifting your knee off the ground and then kicking the lower half of your leg straight out in front of you. Work the muscles on the outside of your hips to get rid of that unwanted flab by lifting your leg sideways as high as you can without moving your torso. Complete each exercise 20 times, one leg at a time.
Challenge your Balance
Grab your partner to be your spotter and challenge each other to see who can do these exercises better. Stand on one leg and try to keep your balance for three minutes. Place a foam pad or pillow on the floor and place both feet about shoulder width apart on the pad and try to keep your balance. Once you can keep your balance for five minutes, attempt to stand on the pad one foot at a time and increase your time.
Melissa Sabo is an occupational therapist who started writing professional guidebooks for all Flagship Rehabilitation employees in 2009. Specializing in applied therapy and exercise for non-medical readers, she also coauthored a manual on wheelchair positioning. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Science in occupational therapy.