A Well-Intentioned Intrusion

I was recently walking on the Mahana Ridge Trail, a beautiful windy path in Northwest Maui. About a quarter-mile down the trail I saw a family with a young child who was being carried backpack style by the mom. As I’m interested in how people carry their children, I looked a little closer and noticed that the child’s legs were splayed in an extreme external rotation, and the backpack pushed his legs against his mom’s back so that they were immobilized. He looked like a flattened frog. It was clear to me that this was not a good position for a child—or anyone—to be in for anything other than a very short period of time.

I don’t want to write much right now about the biomechanics of the child’s position. For now, I’ll say that it’s not good for a child to be stuck in an extreme and rigid position. Instead, I would like to share with you more about my reaction. I didn’t want to be an intrusive stranger and tell this young family what to do. At the same time, I had been thinking a lot about hip health as I was hiking with my friend who’s mom had just broken her hip two days earlier when she tripped over an electrical cord.

It’s not uncommon for me to see people with habits of movement that I think don’t serve them well. Usually I say nothing. Once in a while I offer a suggestion but this is usually in an environment where I can be certain that the person would appreciate my help.

In this situation, I was less sure. Parents often receive unsolicited advice from others about the best way to take care of their children and I did not want to be intrusive. However, as I continued walking I could not get the image of the young boys smushed legs and immobilized pelvis out of my mind.

We were hiking much faster than they were and quickly lost sight of them. But as I charged up the trail, my head was full of bouncing thoughts. Would it be helpful to tell them something? Would they find me obnoxious and get angry? Would saying something make a difference in this child’s life? How many other people are using what they think are good tools — myself included — without knowing that they are actually causing harm? Was I just afraid of angering or annoying someone? How much is it my responsibility to offer advice?

With my head still full of these ruminations, it was time to turn back. A few minutes later the family came back into our line of vision and I decided to say something.

I received a mixed response. The parents thanked me for my concern but then became defensive. They wanted to be seen as good parents and began to tell me how they have a much better backpack at home that they didn’t bring with them to Hawaii. I quickly realized that they probably did not want to hear my opinion that even high-quality sturdy backpacks designed for kids limit their movement and just because something is advertised as having great ergonomics, doesn’t mean it’s great for a sustained period of time.

I walked away at first feeling a bit of shame. I had intruded on their beautiful hike. However, if I had not said anything I would have felt regret.

I experience shame as a devastating visceral feeling in the moment when it happens. Fortunately, that intensity passes. Regret, however, tends to linger on in my mind, sometimes for years. I’m glad I decided to take the risk and share my thoughts. I have no regrets and the shame has passed. In the past year, I have known many people who have had hip replacement surgery and I also know many people who have broken their hips. I guess this is my way of trying to “fix” something that I really have no control over.

I’ll never know the outcome of this particular situation. At worst the parents were temporarily annoyed, but perhaps I planted a seed. I do know that I will continue to encounter situations like this. My guess is that I will deal with each situation differently but eventually, just like I see patterns in movement, I’ll be able to see patterns in my approach as well as in people’s response to my well-intentioned intrusions.

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.