Tag Archives: dementia

Have you walked 10,000 steps today? by Seán Carey

Women walking

I’m sure you’re aware of the recent flurry of articles regarding John Hopkins University’s Dr Greg Hager who queried the general usefulness of fitness apps, especially those which encourage the wearer to take 10,000 steps a day. “Some of you might wear Fitbits or something equivalent,” said Dr Hager, a computer scientist, “and I bet every now and then it gives you a cool little message ‘You did 10,000 steps today’. But why is 10,000 steps important? What’s big about 10,000?”

Good questions.

Dr Hager went on to tell his audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science that 10,000 steps was a very arbitrary goal based on a single study of the movement pattern and estimated 3000-calorie burn of Japanese men some 50 years ago. “Imagine everyone thinks they have to do 10,000 steps,” said Dr Hager, warming to his theme, “but if you are not actually physically capable of doing that, you could actually cause harm or damage by doing so”.

Quite right.

Nevertheless, there is obviously a danger that some people will interpret Dr Hager’s warning that because the target of 10,000 steps is ill-founded they should give up walking for exercise. That, of course, would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, the general consensus based on current scientific research is that walking is highly beneficial, not only because of its cardiovascular benefits but also because of its mood-regulating effects. For example, it helps to stave off or reduce depression and anxiety, partly by releasing the stress hormone adrenaline stored in the muscles, and partly by stimulating circulation and breathing.

Walking has also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia by around 20 per cent, improve sleep quality and contributes to whole-body bone density. Yet whatever the motivation and benefits, the important question from an Alexander Technique point of view is: what methods should you employ in walking to make it as efficient as possible in order to get positive health benefits without incurring damage or injury to your musculoskeletal system?

In a brief account of walking in his first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander complained about the widespread tendency of “civilised peoples” to adopt a “rolling gait” (side-to-side movement). “Nearly everyone I examine or observe in the act of walking,” he wrote, “employs unnecessary physical tension in the process in such a way that there is a tendency to shorten the spine and legs, by pressing … down through the floor.”

The “rolling gait” detected by Alexander was most likely the dominant pattern of walking amongst middle-class Edwardian Londoners. In fact making a side-to-side swaying movement remains remarkably prevalent amongst people in contemporary Europe and North America, although nowadays it is matched by a pattern of over striding, in which the foot lands too far ahead of the trunk, the head is pulled down on to the neck, the lower back is pulled in and the rib cage stiffened. This pattern of malcoordination in part reflects the amount of time many of us spend in slumped, C-shaped sitting, a practice which causes contraction throughout the body’s musculature and interferes with our kinaesthetic sense, but also in part reflects or expresses the many hard-to-escape time pressures embedded in post-industrial societies.

When Alexander made that observation about a rolling gait, he reckoned that the basis of efficient walking was to put one foot either behind or in front of the other making an angle of about 45 degrees between the feet, with the body weight supported mainly by the rear foot. This allows the knee of the forward leg to bend so that a small step can be taken with the front foot. At the same time, the ankle of the rear foot should bend a little so that, as Alexander explained, “the whole body is inclined slightly forward, thus allowing the propelling force of gravitation to be brought into play”.

Later on in life, Alexander had simplified and refined what was required sometimes saying to a student at the end of a lesson: “Up to put the foot down because we all think down to put the foot down.” It’s a succinct summary of what’s involved in biomechanically efficient locomotion.

You can read more about an Alexander approach to walking in Seán Carey’s Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run

Available through Amazon with free P & P

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