We’ve all heard that walking is an excellent part of a regular, healthy regimen. “Get your 10,000 steps!” is the battlecry for many walkers. With this, you’ve set your daily reminder, grabbed your spiffy new walking shoes, and are headed out the door with your step-tracking device. All is good until your body starts complaining of nagging pain with walking that won’t go away.
So, why does it hurt when walking is supposed to be good for me? Is it the shoes? Is walking bad for me?
Benefits of Walking
First, we know that physical activity has countless benefits, and we should get moving daily.
Here are some of the main benefits of walking.
1. Improved cardiovascular health
Regular aerobic exercise can help fight atherosclerosis (when substances like cholesterol create a blockage of the inside walls of blood vessels) by lowering fats in your blood, decreasing high blood pressure, and controlling your weight. With strokes, heart attacks, peripheral artery disease, and death related to atherosclerosis, walking can help improve healthy blood flow and vascular health.
2. Strong leg muscles
Your leg muscles help you move, support the weight of your body, and support you while standing. Strong leg muscles help keep your body balanced and more stable to help keep you from falling. Walking works your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles - all of your major lower extremity muscles.
3. Increased bone density
Weight-bearing exercise such as walking can help you build stronger bones. If you have good bone density already, walking can help slow bone loss
4. Healthy weight and losing body fat
Physical activities such as walking are essential for weight loss because you burn calories. Most experts recommend 30 minutes to one hour of brisk walking to lose weight. You can burn 500-1000 calories weekly with five days of brisk walking for 30 minutes.
5. Increased energy levels
Are you struggling to keep focus or pay attention? Walking helps boost your energy levels by increasing hormones like endorphins and delivering oxygen to the cells throughout your body. As a bonus of using a walk as a break from work or school, you can help reduce the buildup of stress hormones like cortisol in your system.
And the list goes on!
6. Improved mood
7. Better sleep quality
8. Improved cognition
9. Increased coordination
10. Improved memory
11. Easing joint pain by protecting the joints
12. Reduction of stress and tension
13. Stronger immune system
14. Prevention or management of various health conditions such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease
Common Pains Related to Walking
Did you notice the benefit of “easing joint pain” above? Yes, you read that right! Walking helps protect the joints, and is why walking is good for people with conditions such as osteoarthritis.
Unfortunately, for many, this doesn’t feel like the case. Instead, people who hurt feel like walking is one of their worst activities. And rather than feeling the many benefits listed above from a movement pattern that we are designed to accomplish, they suffer adverse effects.
Common symptoms can include lower leg pain, lower back pain, hip pain, knee soreness, plantar fasciitis, or Achilles tendon strain. Many of these are hastily attributed to overuse or lack of a proper warm up. And the usual solutions for pain relief are typically applied; over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs or using shoe inserts for added cushioning until your condition is severe enough to see your orthopedic doctor.
In the more severe cases or when the pain with walking persists for long periods, physical therapy may be recommended to treat the area of pain.
But... what if the site of the pain is NOT the source of the problem? (And it rarely is).
Look for the Root of the Problem
Let’s start by pointing out the elephant in the room. In our current Western medical model, the standard approach is sickness care (vs. healthcare). What that means is “wait until you have a problem, then treat the problem, and try to get it to go away as quickly as possible. Masking pain symptoms is common with drugs designed to decrease awareness in the body, and many therapeutic modalities go after the site of the pain versus root causes.
Who wants to feel pain?
No one, of course. And focusing on just getting rid of pain seems logical enough. However, from a holistic viewpoint, we recognize pain as a part of health versus the opposite of health. Or, another way to think about it is, what purpose is pain serving and what is your body telling you?
When we look at the body as a whole instead of isolating the individual part that hurts, then we see how the feet and ankles interact and affect the knees. And then how the knees affect the hips, and the pelvis, and the spine, and so on. Of course, these interactions of the various parts of the body work in multiple directions and not just up the body (e.g., right and left, down, diagonally, etc).
The Balancing Act
This balancing act of the body requires that muscles are coordinating efforts with other muscles to produce effective, efficient movement of the joints for activities like walking. The nervous system's coordination efforts in overseeing muscle balance can become disrupted or weakened when not used often enough or workarounds become the norm (for injuries, weakness, etc).
So, when you have knee pain with walking while going up or down inclines, or hip and lumbar pain with walking longer distances, it’s likely those areas of pain that are signaling to your brain that something needs attention.
And just what needs attention? While that can vary from person to person based on their posture and the accompanying musculoskeletal function going into the walk (or other activity), most of the time the answer is proper balance in the body.
Here are some clues you can look for with the following common pains with walking.
If you have knee pain with walking, try this test
- With shorts on or your pants rolled up, stand relaxed and take a look in a mirror (or snap a pic) of your legs from the front view.
- First, notice the direction that your feet point. Most likely, they point out. But are they the same? Does the one that points out hurt, or the one that points straighter?
- Next, look at your knee caps. Which direction do they point? In or out? And are they the same?
- Do they point the same direction as your feet or at different angles?
If you have hip or lumbar pain with walking, try this test
- First, find a wall and stand (no shoes) with your heels and butt backed up to it.
- Next, try to flex your pelvis posteriorly (meaning tucked under) so that your lower back flattens into the wall.
- Can you do it? How far away from the wall do your knees bend?
- Did you feel pressure or tension trying to tuck under? Where was it?
If you have Achilles tendon pain or plantar fasciitis, try this test
- First, sit on the floor with your legs straight and the bottoms of your bare feet against a wall.
- Next, can you get the entirety of your feet, from heel to toe, flat on the wall with your knees extended and touching the floor?
- How about when you try to straighten your feet so that all of your toes point to the ceiling?
What do these tests tell you?
Each test is challenging your proper muscle balance. However, these tests are not just asking about the site of your pain but how some of the muscles, fascia and soft tissues are working across multiple joints in your body.
So, if you have trouble with these, then it's likely that you need more of a whole-body approach to healing your pain. And as an added benefit, by treating your body as a whole versus the parts you are not only addressing the pain site but preventing other issues from popping up down your walking path.
The health benefits listed above all add up to helping you improve your quality of life. And these days, it’s not just life span that matters but health span. In other words, will you be able to enjoy those extra years you gained from doing the right things like walking and taking care of yourself?
The parts of the body need to work together in balance. And when it comes to something like walking that we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of years trying to perfect, you’d think it would be pretty natural and easy for us humans by now.
However, when our various lifestyle habits, sports, injuries, sedentary positions, or other stimuli create postural misalignments, our bodies no longer operate as they were designed. Instead, they’re a jumble of mismatched muscle patterns and areas of the body that have become isolated from the rest of the body in their functions.
All is not lost, however! The happy ending to this is that your body is extremely forgiving and with the proper restoration of your posture and function, you can both get out of pain and enjoy healthy, long walks again!
Take the first step towards correcting your posture today! Schedule a discovery call with a trained, experienced Posture Therapist.