Walking and lower back pain
Maybe we don’t all walk the magic 10,000 steps a day, but most of us walk a fair few of them every day. Walking is more than a means of getting us from A to B, it is a healthy exercise, a means of relaxation, a cure for lower back pain… Or is it?
Many people ‘stretch their legs’ or go for a ‘turn around the block’ in the hope that they will be able to find some relief from their back pain symptoms, and often such an activity is recommended. However, it may be just this which is causing your lower back pain. I’m not saying we shouldn’t walk, nor that such advice is incorrect, but here are a few things to consider.
Poor posture when you are walking (standing, sitting, sleeping…) can result in lower back pain, as your weight is not evenly distributed. Looking at the ground, slumping your shoulders, scuffing your feet and allowing your arms to hang limply at your side are features which could all contribute to lower back pain.
As your head is the heaviest part of your body, if it is off-balance it will have repercussions on the rest of your body. Similarly, your hips should be level, your knees and feet pointing forward and your back straight. Your arms should be at 90° to the body and swinging in time with the opposite leg to keep you balanced. If you are carrying a bag, it should have two shoulder straps to evenly distribute the weight, and if heavy, hip straps to distribute loading on the back.
Your heel should strike the ground first, then the pressure roll towards the ball of your foot, and you push off with your big toe. Unlike with running there should not be a moment of suspension where neither foot is touching the ground.
It is important to settle into a good rhythm when walking and to bear in mind when walking with friends or family that your optimum walking rhythms may not be the same. Your length of stride should be comfortable and you should not be over-reaching or rotating your hips. Equally, however, taking lots of very small quick steps can throw you off-balance.
Additionally, if your legs are the same length the length of each step should be the same. People who are suffering from a sprained ankle, for example, tend to limp on one side in order to prevent worsening of their injury. However, when your joints have fully recovered, it is important to resume normal walking stride as soon as possible.
The rhythm of the walk is not generated from the legs but from the abdominal muscles. If your abdominal muscles are not strong enough to support a good posture, you will struggle to maintain an efficient and balanced walk. If this is the case, abdominal strengthening exercises may be worthwhile.
You should be aware that the type of ground you are walking on will not only impact your feet, ankles and knees, but your back as well. Walking on hard concrete or tarmac surfaces has a jarring effect on your joints. While a hard surface can help you to establish a good walking rhythm, it is likely to cause wear-and-tear damage.
Walking on uneven surfaces, such as through woods or forests where there are tree stumps or muddy patches, is likely to throw you off-balance and it will be hard to maintain a good rhythm for any stretch of the walk.
Smooth and forgiving surfaces such as long flat stretches of grass or wet sand are probably the best for the health of your joints and back. You should be able to achieve a good walking pace and posture, and hopefully have some good views to enjoy at the same time.
Let’s face it – hobbling about with blisters is neither fun nor desirable. Your feet take the brunt of the torture of ill-fitting or inappropriate footwear, and if they are unable to withstand the effects of this, the lovely balance, rhythm and posture you have just established will be set to nought.
Trainers are often a good option for walking, as they support the feet and ankle joints. This will mean that your back will not need to rotate or bend in order to compensate for suffering lower limbs.
So, bring your shoulders back, level your pelvis, swing your arms and put your best foot forward. Make sure that walking is curing your back pain, not causing it…
Originally written on 18/08/2015, updated on 03/10/2018.