Logo for Buffalo Rehab Group

How Does Footwear Affect Your Walking

Walking is our most basic function. We know that on average we take between 6,000 and 10,000 steps each day. What happens when we walk with improper technique for weeks, months, or even years? How can we fix or optimize our gait with the least commitment? In this brief article, well cover these questions plus:

  • How our footwear affects our gait
  • An exercise to assist in proper walking form/technique

What Shoes Should I Wear?

This question is one of the most popular that I hear in our clinic… and at home. Aesthetics aside, our footwear plays an important role in our gait. First, to understand why our footwear affect us, it’s useful to understand gait itself. We can break it down into three simplified phases:

First strike – when the heel of our front foot first contacts the ground
Rocking phase – weight shifts from our rear foot to our front foot
Balance phase – when our one foot is on the ground and our other is swinging forward

If we take two extremes of footwear – high heels and athletic shoes for example, it’s easy to see how shoes alter the way we walk. Footwear with heels cause our first strike to occur with a flat foot and eliminates the rocking phase. They also cause higher pressure on our heel during the balance phase. Effectively, footwear with a significant heel (> ¾ inch) causes more load to our knee joint and heel bone, leads to undesirable tightening of the calf muscles, and inhibits the smaller stabilizing muscles of our foot.

On the other hand, athletic shoes or those with a low heel and more pliability, allow natural movements of our feet and more joints in the leg to safely absorb the forces of walking. If more joints and muscles in the leg are able to aid in our walking, we place less wear and tear on our body.

Practicality aside, your classic Nike training shoes don’t belong with that summer dress or a nice set of slacks. In your future shoe buying endeavours, look for shoes that have smaller heels, and are pliable through the sole and toe box. Leather, and canvas offer many of these benefits as well as less smell than traditional synthetic fabrics and improved conformity over time.

What’s the ONE Thing I Can Do?

If you’re on board so far, we know that our shoes can affect the way we walk, but there’s got to be something else that can help too right? Just like “there’s an app for that”, there’s an exercise for this. It’s called initial contact rocking and it’ll teach you how to walk with better form, improved balance and less load to your knees and spine.

Initial Contact Rocking

Setup between two counters or a counter and the back of a chair for hand support. Step one foot forward and ensure your feet are both facing straight ahead.
Slowly shift your weight onto your front foot and lift only your rear foot heel off the ground, pushing through your rear foot toes.
Reverse your weight shift to your back foot and lift your front foot toes off the ground.
Rock back and forth, decreasing hand support as you improve. Keep your head and chest tall.

Now that you have a better understanding of your gait, you can practice the above to improve your walking. Longevity is our ultimate goal – we all want to have the best quality of life and walking is key to our independence. Over the next several weeks, look more closely at:

  1. What shoes you choose on the days your feet, knees, and back are sore
  2. How your walking compares to the phases of gait outlined above
  3. If your gait looks like the initial contact rocking drill
  4. If not, practice makes perfect!

If you’d like to learn more about your gait or would like to speak directly with one of our Physical Therapists, you can schedule your free appointment here.

Koepsell, Thomas D., et al. “Footwear style and risk of falls in older adults.” Journal of the american geriatrics society 52.9 (2004): 1495-1501. APA