Body language is millions of years old, and has played an integral role in helping humans survive as a species. Our sitting and standing stance, and the way we move, called gait, are the words of this language. In a natural setting, the brain “reads” another person’s body thanks to cells called mirror neurons. This is how we might recognize a partner or friend from a distance before being able to make out their facial features. All animals use it to identify weaker prey, a potential healthy mate, or an enemy to avoid.
Our stature is a reflection of the body’s physical, chemical and mental-emotional state, the sum total of our health and fitness. This complex mechanism is regulated by the brain, which controls the individual muscles that move us, producing our particular gait.
We move in specific ways, at particular paces with varying qualities. A vibrant youthful gait is significantly different from one that is less balanced, bent over a bit, or limping. Even a seemingly insignificant injury, a minor metabolic problem or a bad meeting with the boss can adversely affect whole body movement through the actions of muscles. And when our gait goes bad, we slow down, whether we are washing dishes, walking to the market or running a marathon.
For decades, researchers have been studying various aspects of the human gait. Sports scientists watch athletes move, neurologists measure patients with brain disorders, and various clinicians—from chiropractors and medical doctors to massage and physical therapists—asses muscles when performing a comprehensive evaluation. This information can help piece together the cause of an irregular gait, and the potential injuries or illness that may be related.
More serious conditions can make themselves evident through an altered gait even before other signs or symptoms arise, making this evaluation an important tool for predicting impairments. Here are some common and easy-to-see examples of measurable altered gaits slowing people down:
- A limp is typically due to some foot, lower limb or back injury.
- Patients with neurological impairments usually walk irregularly, including those with Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, stroke and other brain injuries.
- Illness such as vascular diseases affects gait too, including those who had a heart attack.
- People with impaired memory, from those without obvious signs or symptoms to patients with more severe cognitive dysfunction such as Alzheimer’s in its earliest stage, show gait alterations.
The evaluation of gait has obvious value in sports. Observing an athlete’s actions can provide important clues that certain muscles may not be working well, increasing the risk of injury. But even if that injury never occurs, the resulting irregular gait will still slow the pace, whether walking, running, cycling, swimming or any athletic movement. By correcting the cause of the abnormal gait, injuries can be prevented and improved performance restored. (This particular approach has been one important focus of my work with athletes for the past 35 years.)
Whether running a marathon, walking 18-holes, cycling, or shopping, an irregular gait slows us down. Because muscles are working ineffectively, the body’s energy is being used inefficiently. It takes more effort to go from point A to point B with an irregular gait, which also elevates the heart rate more than usual, making one fatigue faster. And, it increases physical stress on joints, tendons, ligaments and bones. The brain, which monitors all these activities as part of its body protection plan, slows our movements rather than risk further damage to an already fragile frame.
Humans move at paces with incredibly similar fashion regarding cadence or tempo, despite differences in our natural gaits. Most of us run about 180 steps per minute. A healthy individual normally walks at a basic pace of about 120 steps per minute. Even our daily activities have been shown to have a “pace” of 120 steps or moves per minute. One exception is walking or running on a treadmill, which is unnatural—the brain senses the body’s movement but remains in one place. The result is a wider variation in tempo. Another exception is when the gait is significantly altered, which not only slows us down but reduces our ability to maintain a healthy tempo.
These numbers—180 and 120—are not precise but an average. Virtually all runners have a range of tempo between about 150 and 190 steps a minute whether jogging, running a marathon, or sprinting. This allows the brain some leeway to adjust one’s pace and gait as necessary. Muscle imbalance, fatigue, caffeine, time of day, the weather and even the estimated time necessary to complete a workout or race can all influence ones gait. The brain will sense these factors and make appropriate changes such as slightly slowing our tempo, or speeding it up, and increasing or decreasing stride length.
Improving ones gait starts with finding the cause or causes for it to be altered—especially the individual muscles that may be contributing and the reasons for their imbalance. Muscle dysfunction in the foot is a frequent cause of altered gait. But nutritional factors, mental stress and other features of our overall wellness can contribute too. Just improving health can help ones gait, sometimes significantly. This is the best recommendation for getting gait—and performance—to a better level.
Fitness affects gait too. Poor aerobic metabolism, for example, can reduce muscle function. In addition to its contribution to fatigue, related to more reliance on sugar for energy and less on fat, this problem can also influence gait.
Music can help the brain improve the gait. In a recent study, Dr. Andrea Trombetti and colleagues of University Hospitals and Faculty of Medicine of Geneva, Switzerland, demonstrated that listening to music increased the brain’s ability to better balance the body. Music stimulates the brain’s rhythm centers in the cerebellum, which strongly effect physical activities controlling gait.