How to Walk Properly: 6 Tips to Fix Your Walking Form
These tips for walking form can help prevent aches, pains, and injuries, while ensuring you're getting the most out of each workout.
How to walk properly
Walking is one of the most accessible and all-around good-for-you exercise programs you can implement. Not only is it easy to throw on a pair of walking shoes and head out the door, but this straightforward form of low-impact cardiovascular exercise works your heart, lungs, legs, and even your core.
Although walking may not seem like something you can mess up—you’ve been doing it practically your whole life, after all—details really matter when it comes to using walking for exercise. To get the most impact from your routine, you need to make sure your form is up to snuff.
Here’s what you need to know about how to walk properly, plus walking mistakes you might be making.
Health benefits of walking
“All of the brilliant benefits of exercise—improve heart and lung health, stronger bones, lowered stress thanks in large part to endorphins, and better sleep quality—can be achieved with something as simple as regular walking,” says Laura Flynn Endres, certified personal trainer and founder of Get Fit Done Games.
“But there are unexpected benefits as well. Walking improves digestion, so walking for 10 to 15 minutes after lunch will make you feel satisfied and fresh, instead of ‘full and sluggish.’ And, if you do it outside, you get the added benefit of fresh air, sunshine, and the emotional release that comes from getting away and outside for a while.”
Of course, walking is also great for fat loss and maintaining a healthy weight. In fact, Endres points out that research indicates walking can be an effective means to blunt the effects of some 32 obesity-promoting genes by up to half.
In fact, you don’t even have to log miles upon miles of daily steps to start seeing the benefits. If you’ve previously been sedentary, it’s possible to start reaping the rewards of walking by increasing your step count to just 3,500 to 4,000 steps a day—a number that’s a lot more attainable than the often-cited 10,000 steps per day.
Don’t forget to stretch! Perform these stretches to balance your walking routine is just as important as knowing how to walk properly.
Why walking form is important
Once again, you’ve been walking practically your entire life, so surely your form can’t be that bad, right? Well … that depends. The reality is, walking is a surprisingly complex movement that requires coordination and engagement of everything from your toes to your neck and shoulders as you carry your entire body weight forward.
And, as you get older, changes to your body can result in changes to your walking mechanics. For instance, an old knee injury that flares up and causes pain may cause you to subconsciously favor one leg over the other. Or, if you’re carrying a little extra weight, you may start walking with a wider stance with outward angled toes to help support the pounds.
“Most of us have a dominant side,” Endres adds. “If your strong leg does more of the work, it can lead to more side-to-side movement, uneven hips, or harder landings with one foot than the other. Those imbalances add up over time.”
And with a walking program designed to increase your step count, those imbalances add up even faster.
Even if you’re “perfectly healthy” without injuries or other issues leading to changes in side-to-side mechanics, that doesn’t mean your walking form is correct. Correct posture plays an important role, too.
“People don’t always consider that there are form considerations for walking, just like there are for exercises like squats and pushups,” Endres says.
“And a weak core is often the culprit. If your abs and back muscles are weak, or if you simply don’t pay attention to them while walking, you might slump, look down, or lean too far forward when walking, leading to inefficient walking form.”
Here’s everything you need to know about walking for exercise.
6 common walking form mistakes
If you recently started a walking program, and a few weeks in, you’re starting to feel aches and pains, the issue might be related to your form. Check out these common walking-form mistakes and learn how to walk properly.
If you tend to carry your phone with you, checking emails and texts as you stroll around the neighborhood, it’s time to put the phone away. Walking with your head looking down (whether or not a phone is to blame) can wreak havoc on your walking form.
“Whatever your neck does, your back follows,” Endres says. “If you’re looking down, you’ll be rounded through your upper back and you’ll take the natural curve out of your lower back. Hanging heavy like that in your posture leads to strain and fatigue.”
So, first and foremost, commit to not checking your phone while you’re out on your walks. Choose a playlist or podcast before you head out, then put the phone somewhere you won’t be tempted to check it. Then, before you even start walking, check your posture.
Your ears should “stack” above your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. While walking form naturally requires movement of your major joints, your spine (including your neck!) should remain upright and aligned in a natural curve.
Sneak in extra walking time with these tips.
Weight-bearing exercise (like walking) is good for your muscles, bones, and joints, but high-impact exercise can take a toll if it’s overdone. Even though walking generally isn’t considered a high-impact form of cardio, if you slap your feet down hard with every step you take, those repetitive heavy landings can start taking a toll.
“Each time your heel lands, it causes mechanical stress on your connective tissue and joints,” Endres explains.
“Some stress is good when it’s enough that your body adapts and gets stronger. Too much, however, and your body can’t adapt. You want to limit the accumulation [of mechanical stress] by landing ‘softly,’ rolling through the foot from heel to toes, staying tall and lifted through the core, using forward and back (not side to side) movement through the arms, and keeping your hips even while you walk.”
To identify whether you’re landing heavy, try imagining yourself walking (with a normal gait) through a house at night while trying not to wake anyone else up—if you feel your footfalls might be loud enough to draw attention, it may be a sign that you need to work on “carrying your weight” with your body’s entire musculature (including your core and upper body), rather than relying only on your lower body and feet to catch and hold your weight.
Essentially, work to absorb the impact of each footfall by using your body’s full musculature to distribute the impact of each step.
(Here’s what you should know about barefoot walking.)
In an effort to speed up your pace, you might find yourself taking longer steps, rather than faster ones. The inclination is natural, but when it comes to walking form, it’s misguided.
“It might be surprising to some, but there’s research to indicate that overstriding during walking can substantially increase mechanical stress on the ankle, knee, and hip joints,” Endres says. “Instead, focus on faster foot-to-foot turnover, soft landings, and feeling ‘lifted and light’ through the core.”
Your steps should feel like they’re the same length as when you take a simple stroll, as this is your body’s natural and efficient movement pattern. If you think about it, lengthening your strides changes the angles at your ankles with each step, which then causes a chain reaction to your knees and hips. These wider steps don’t provide the same support or shock absorption as when you’re taking a more natural step width, which, over time, can lead to aches, pains, or injuries.
(Boost your mood by walking this many minutes.)
Pointing your toes outward with a greater step width
When walking, you want your toes to point straight ahead, with each heel strike aligned under your hips (not landing wider than hip-distance apart). Unfortunately, particularly in an overweight and obese demographic, it’s very common for these small mechanical changes to take place in an effort to create a wider base of support for added weight.
This wider stance and resulting wider step width can actually place more stress and strain on the joints, ultimately increasing the likelihood of injury. In fact, according to a 2007 study looking at the effects of obesity on walking biomechanics, obese individuals had a wider step width, increased knee movements, and increased ground reaction force.
Together, these effects can create a chain reaction that leads to pain and injuries with time. That said, the same study found that obese individuals can reduce the negative effects by simply walking more slowly. And if you’d rather not slow your speed, just be more conscious of your gait and pay attention to how you position your heels and toes with each step.
Not engaging your core
You may not have spent time thinking about it, but your core is surprisingly important for supporting proper walking form. The job of your core in everyday movement is to help your body remain upright, to transfer energy from your lower to upper body, and to facilitate coordinated side-to-side movement. Walking requires all three of these things.
And if you fail to engage your core while walking, you’re more likely to allow your low back to sway, your shoulders to round forward, and for your posture to suffer. This likely won’t cause pain or problems at first, but over time, these small mechanical inefficiencies and misalignments can lead to bigger problems.
So go ahead and check your posture before you hit the road. Roll your shoulders back, make sure your ears “stack” above your shoulders and hips, and without “sucking in,” use your abs to draw your belly button toward your spine. You may also want to tuck your hips slightly under if you have a tendency to allow your low back to sway as you walk.
(Learn which side of the road you should be walking on.)
Forgetting to use your arms
Sure, walking is mainly a lower body exercise, but your arms play a role, too! In fact, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that walking with a restricted arm swing of one or both arms (you know, like when you’re sending text messages to your friends or you put your hands in your pockets) reduced the walking speed and stride of the study participants.
And anything that reduces your speed (and engages fewer muscle groups) will essentially make the exercise less challenging, thereby reducing the calories you burn while walking. You don’t need to exaggerate your arm swing or do anything fancy, either. Just make sure you’re allowing your arms to swing naturally as you head out for your walk.
Now that you know how to walk properly, learn what to do when walking causes back pain.
- Laura Flynn Endres, CPT, of Get Fit Done
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Effects of arm swing on walking abilities in healthy adults restricted in the Wernicke-Mann's limb position"
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "Effects of Obesity on the Biomechanics of Walking at Different Speeds"