Not All Walking Is The Same

Walking near a body of water on a warm day exhilarates me. I especially enjoy walking barefoot on grass or sand. I love breathing in the fresh air and feeling my ribs expand and contract.  I treasure the opportunity to gaze off into the horizon and challenge my eyes to look even further.

A few weeks ago, I went for a walk at Baby Beach in Northern Maui. On my way home I saw a sign at a gym advertising a yoga class. After being under the beautiful clear sky and imbibing the fresh open air I was feeling a great sense of vitality. I was excited about the possibility of trying a new class.

I took one step into the gym and my body immediately clenched into a protective mode. The expansiveness I had felt a moment before vanished as my eyes had to narrow to protect themselves from the harsh artificial light. My breath became shallow in response to the toxic scent of offgassing from the thick black mats. When I saw all the movement machines – treadmills, ellipticals and stairwalkers – I just wanted to run away as fast as possible. After stretching my legs on the beach, I couldn’t imagine choosing to put myself on a machine that would force me into a limited range of movement where I couldn’t look up at the sky or even stop to pick up a pebble.

After noting my visceral reaction, I decided that it was important to share my understanding of how walking on a treadmill is a very different experience than walking on stable ground. I understand that not everyone can go for a walk near a beautiful body of water. Not everyone has the option of going for a walk outside at all. I grew up in Minnesota and remember those days when it was so cold that it was dangerous to go outside. If one is living in a concrete jungle or there is a lot of outdoor pollution, I can understand why someone would stay indoors. However, I think it’s good to be informed and have an understanding of how all walking is not the same.

Here are a few simple examples:
To create a base-level healthy gait, one needs to extend one leg backwards and then push off with that foot to propel the leg forward. This pushing off creates a cascade effect throughout the entire body that optimally loads the joints and massages the spine. Treadmills eliminate this all-important movement and instead force us to throw the leg forward and then pull (rather than push-off) it backward in order to stay on the device. This constant flexion of the leg increases tension in the diaphragm and abdomen as well as tightens the front of the thighs all of which can lead to pelvic floor dysfunction.

This flexion of the leg also impacts arm movement.  In a healthy gait the backward swing of the arm happens automatically.  This tones the triceps, opens the chest and helps lymph to flow.  On a treadmill, the forward action becomes the driving movement.  This movement closes down the front of the chest much like our daily habits of keyboarding and driving.

Treadmills also have less visible effects.  As we walk, our brain expects the terrain to change.  When we continue to look at the same spot on a wall or stare at a screen, our brain becomes confused and experiences sensory mismatch; our visual and proprioceptive systems become out of sync with each other. For some this experience is subtle and may go unnoticed. For others it can cause dizziness, nausea and an overall feeling of discomfort.

Thinking back to my gym experience, I began to wonder: Even if someone did not know the disadvantages of treadmill walking why would they choose to put themself on a machine when it was gorgeous outside? In my quest to not be judgmental, I racked my brain for plausible explanations. Perhaps the treadmill walkers want the alone time or like the controlled temperature? Maybe they don’t want to have to think about where they are going or want to avoid waiting at traffic lights?

While there are a small number of people for whom these explanations are accurate, I think the true answer is more insidious. We have become accustomed to walking on machines because we have been told that’s what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to “get exercise.” We are supposed to measure our steps and our heart rate.  And then, if we get the right numbers, we’ll be healthy. It’s hard to think that a treadmill may not be an optimal choice for movement if that contradicts what we’ve been told. I used to walk on them too.

A few weeks after my experience at the gym I was sitting at home and feeling very antsy.  It has been pouring rain for over two weeks straight. I wanted to go for a long walk but was put off by the powerful wind that would blow water sideways onto my face and didn’t want to walk under the fluorescent lights in the mall. I realized that if I wanted to move, it was time to be creative. I found the most spacious indoor place available and cleared away all the furniture except for a table and chair. I spent the next 45 minutes walking around on a twisting path of my own making. As someone for whom movement is essential for my emotional well-being, I was ecstatic to have a new way to take care of myself. The cold and wet days of winter will never be the same.