"The American Walk"


The way you walk may be causing your head forward posture, especially if you carry a lot of stress, and walk too hurriedly. It’s interesting to note that Americans overseas may identify themselves as American when they walk this way.

After 9/11, I was driving home in my car, after teaching a walking class to a group of seniors. On the radio, the NPR reporter was asking a French shopkeeper “How is the tourism, was it affected by 9/11?”  She answered, “No, we still have lots of tourists, Swiss, German, Italians, British and others. It’s true, we don’t see many Americans.” There was a long silence as the NPR reporter digested this. Finally he said, “How do you know that people walking outside your shop are not Americans?” And the reply, “That’s easy, when Americans walk, it’s all legs.”  I had recently returned from Italy, and that is exactly what I had just said to my class. 

Is the American walk all legs?  It’s inaccurate to say all Americans walk in any particular way.  Nonetheless, what can often identify an American to a discerning eye is the putting of one foot too far in front while walking. To be fair, any person rushing and under stress tends to walk more that way and many Americans walk more sensibly. Forward propulsion in walking does not come from planting a leg in front. That is a mechanical obstruction to forward movement. It stresses the ankle, knee and hip and acts like a brake. When we push our weight into that forward planted foot, it throws the head and torso forward; in order to prevent this, the back over-tightens. But still, the head is thrust forward of the neck with every step.

Internally, the all-important weight bearing leg is gone from our awareness, due to the effort and clumsy drama of the non-weight bearing leg thrusting uselessly in front of our body mass, creating havoc. It is a sure method to produce a forward protruded head, which is a prime cause of chronic neck pain.

How to recognize an American by how he/she walks: Take an imaginary picture – a freeze frame – of the person walking. Is a foot in front of their torso as it hits the ground? It takes a quick eye and a little patience to see this in real time. It’s easier to get a general impression; if the walk seems to be all legs you’ll have a clue. If the walk seems more restful, they appear taller, more relaxed, with the head and neck balanced elegantly, chances are it is the more natural or European style walking. 

If I am an American, can I learn to walk the European way? Yes – temporarily. It’s unreasonable to expect to permanently change your natural walk so drastically without personal coaching and consistent effort over many months or years. However, just a little effort now and then will allow you to easily shift your walking style at will. I’ve done that for some years, and now my normal walk is much improved. If you are interested in learning this, here’s how to begin:

Stand quietly and slowly shift your weight from the left foot to the right. Hold onto a doorframe or bookcase, since you don’t want to be distracted about balance.   Go back and forth like that very slowly – take 2 or 3 seconds to go from one side to the other. Especially sense a foot as it takes weight. Practice this until you can clearly feel one leg fully relax as the other takes weight. Then, all you have to do is take that same motion into walking with baby steps, and gradually incorporate a little of that same feeling into your regular walk. Relaxing one side of the body as the other side is engaged in weight bearing is crucial (for some, this may take a bit of time), since when you can fully activate that reflex, many things happen:

  • The relaxed non-weight bearing leg is less likely to over-stride forward.
  • The shifting of weight gets the body out of the way, so to speak, for an easier motion of the non-weight bearing leg to swing passively under the torso’s full weight. It takes only a slight exaggeration of your shifting of weight to allow that. If the shifting of weight left and right is minimized as in the American Walk, the body weight never shifts left and right, and your poor feet have to quickly, almost desperately, rush to get planted under you. 
  • Not only the non-weight bearing leg relaxes, but that entire side of the body. This allows for better counter-rotation of spine and ribs (which actually powers walking and running), better breathing, and less compression throughout the body. You’ll stand taller.  One half of your body gets a mini-vacation with every step you take.

Once you learn that, sense your head as you shift your weight from side to side. Appreciate that moment when your head is directly over the standing leg; feel or imagine that you can grow taller, from toes to top of head, as you stand on one leg (this means you subtly adjust how your hip takes the weight of your torso – keep your body weight over the high point of the hip). Eventually begin to walk, keeping your awareness on the shifting of weight. You’ll be walking like a toddler, and you won’t be over striding. Whenever you want to shift into a better way of walking, start like that. Eventually it will be easier and you’ll go faster. In the beginning you have to go very slowly. Some easy ways to implement this as you walk: 

  • Deliberately walk 30 seconds while slightly exaggerating the tendency to over stride and thrust your legs in front; this makes it more conscious and easier, subsequently, to let it go. 
  • Deliberately pay attention to those moments when a foot takes weight, as opposed to when you swing of a leg in front. Shifting your awareness is far easier, and more effective, than attempting to mechanically intervene.
  • Deliberately pay attention to those moments that you shift your weight side to side. You’ve always shifted your weight as you walk, but as you’ve grown older, you lost awareness of it. That’s mainly why you over stride.
  • Deliberately pay attention to one side of your body relaxing, as the other is weight bearing. Notice the rhythmical, precise way in which your body is able to do this. Appreciate it! It’s quite remarkable.   
  • Remind yourself (if you are rushed and want to walk faster), that by first walking slower you can shift into this new, more efficient way of walking, and you’ll actually go faster, with less effort.
  • Cultivate a sense of appreciation for those moments that the earth is supporting one foot, one side of the body. 
  • Focus on walking softly, walking tall, with an unhurried attitude.
  • When you want to walk faster, keep in touch with the idea of side shifting while allowing easier and faster swinging of the arms in front and back along with counter-rotation of hips and shoulders.

By such means, you’ll gradually discover a better walk. Occasionally do these things, don’t try to do them all at once. Again, avoid mechanically altering the way you walk; it’s too difficult to do in real time, and any change is only temporary - no benefit for a lot of work.  On the other hand, expanding and refining your awareness is easy, and has many benefits, not just for walking. The results you get that way may be apparently small, but they are permanent and ongoing.

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin  www.mybodycanlearn.com