If you’ve been following my column over the last year, you know I am passionate about helping people walk well. The components of walking well include having a good stepping pattern (heel to toe), adequate step length and adequate speed.
Three of the main factors that can have a negative influence on these components of walking are pain, unsteadiness and bad habits.
As a physiotherapist, I identify how these factors affect my clients’ walking quality and guide them through exercises designed to address their individual needs. One of my favourite tools to use during this process is a set of walking poles.
The use of walking poles began as an extension of cross-country skiing training. There has been a significant evolution in walking pole construction and techniques to make their use beneficial to a wide group of people. Here is how using walking poles can address these factors to improve the quality of your walking.
Painful joints are a common cause of altered walking patterns, as people adjust their movement to avoid discomfort. These shorter and uneven step lengths commonly lead to a limp. Walking poles can reduce the pressure in the ankle, knee and hip in each step.
In a typical 10-minute walk, we take 1,000 steps (500 per leg). A small reduction in joint pressure done 500 times can have a big impact on comfort during walking. As the pain reduces, the need for a limp disappears and walking patterns can normalize.
The feeling of unsteadiness can cause people to walk with their feet further apart, take shuffling steps and reduce their arm swing. Walking poles introduce two more points of contact with the ground; that improves the ability to maintain steady balance while walking.
With that steadiness, it becomes easier to normalize the stepping pattern and the arms are reminded to swing due to the need to move and plant the poles with each step.
One of the most common issues I see with walking quality is the lack of heel-to-toe patterning in each step. Every step we take should start with a heel contact and then roll through to a push off the ball of the foot.
Pain, balance issues, weakness, and previous injury all contribute to a loss of this natural heel-to-toe pattern in each step. The increased confidence and comfort that people often experience with walking poles can allow easier retraining of this pattern.
Walking poles are a great tool to improve your walking quality. However, it is always a good idea to consult a physiotherapist to find out if they are appropriate for you and to learn the related exercises to maximize your strength and stability.
Watch for my next column, where I will overview the benefits of two different techniques while using walking poles to help you determine if they might be a good fit for you.