What Your Walking Style Can Reveal About Your Health
Medical experts share what your gait and walking style—from limping to a listless walk—can reveal about your overall health.
When we traipse around the house or step out for a stroll, most of us don’t think twice about putting one foot in front of the other. For many people, it’s a given to take the ability to walk (and to walk well) for granted. That is, until something goes wrong. Then we develop a newfound appreciation for our former ambulatory prowess.
Your walking style can reflect a host of physical, physiological, neurological, and even psychological influences and problems. “Your gait reveals a lot,” says Jessica B. Schwartz, a doctor of physical therapy and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “I see health issues manifested not only in my patients’ steps, but among the general public when I see people walking in a mall or airport,” says Dr. Schwartz, who is also a physical therapist at Physical Therapy to Go based in New York City.
So, wonder what your walking style can reveal about your health? We spoke with medical experts who share how certain walking styles can shed light on specific health conditions. (Also, here are the health benefits and risk of walking barefoot.)
Favoring one leg when bearing the weight and impact of each step suggests that a joint injury is present. This can come from structural problems like a muscle strain, sprained ligaments, a torn meniscus, or other damaged joint structures, arthritis, leg length differences, or foot problems. And it can get worse because an off-balance stride affects other body parts, too.
“The body is amazing at creating compensation mechanisms for ailments of the lower extremity,” says Henry C. Hilario, a physician specializing in foot and ankle surgery at The Orthopaedic Clinic in the Willis-Knighton Health System in Shreveport, Louisiana. “Some patients may have always had one leg that is shorter but might only notice it later in life as their body’s compensation over time, eventually wears joints out faster and contributes to back-, hip-, knee- and foot pain. The foot and ankle also compensate for being flatfooted or having a high instep which can then lead arthritis later in life.”
If pain in your lower extremities becomes chronic and actually alters your gait, it’s important to get help. “The causes of limping can be evaluated and treated by a skilled physical therapist,” adds Dr. Schwartz. You can find a physical therapist here.
“Age can be tied to how fast or slow a person’s walks,” says Dr. Hilario. Lower body muscles like the glutes, tend to weaken with age, according to a 2017 study published in BMC Geriatrics. Also, the fast-twitch muscle fibers in the lower body can decline, suggests a 2013 study in Experimental Gerontology. Together, these two things may result in a loss of power and, therefore, slower walking.
“Someone with obesity or pain from joint injuries or osteoarthritis tends to walk slower as well,” adds Dr. Schwartz. “With obesity, a person may have a wider stance and spend a longer time in each phase of the stepping motion since transferring the excess body weight quickly can be more difficult, especially if a person is out of shape.”
Of course, walking, along with a nutrient-rich, lower-calorie diet, is a great way to help a person who’s obese lose weight if done frequently enough and for long enough. Just be sure to not make these common walking mistakes.
A shuffling step where the feet don’t lift high off the ground and instead scoot, rather than roll, through the full heel-to-toe range of motion could also be indicative of Parkinson’s disease, according to Dr. Schwartz. “If your walking is altered by pain or dysfunction you need to see a PT,” she says.
Many people do not realize that you do not need a prescription or referral from a physician to see a physical therapist. In a policy known as Direct Access, a person can have at least one exam by a physical therapist without a referral, and in many states, you can have up to 30 days of treatment before you need a prescription. “There are often things we can do to help with pain and dysfunction,” says Dr. Schwartz.
Some exercises that can help strengthen the muscles that lift your feet with each step are heel lifts (rise up and down on the balls of your foot to develop calf strength, which helps to push your body weight forward with each step) and knee lifts (raise your thigh to hip level to strengthen the hip flexors, which help raise your leg and foot with each step.)
Some people have a tough time staying centered and appear to waddle from side to side. Sometimes veering in a sideways direction from the continual imbalance with each step. “This can be a sign of gluteal muscle weakness,” says Dr. Schwartz.
“This pattern, known as the Trendelenburg gait, that resembles a penguin walk is often due to hip osteoarthritis.” Exercise can help since the condition stems from muscle weakness and imbalances in the pelvis. “You can do the old-style fire hydrant exercise also known as doggy kicks, where you get on your hands and knees and raise your bent leg up and down on each side,” says Dr. Schwartz.
These moves target the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles which, when strong, help keep the legs better aligned.
Think about when you’ve felt happy, excited about something, or even in love. These emotions can carry-over into your walking style, as well. “You can tell a lot about a person’s mental state from their physical demeanor,” explains Barry Gritz, MD, a psychiatrist based in Houston. “Someone who is in a good place ambulates differently, almost gliding when they walk.”
Since you’re energized when you’re experiencing positive emotions, it’s a good idea to take a walk. Walking more and bumping up your intensity a notch can help you reap even greater physical and mental benefits from your workouts. (Plus, check out these tips to get the most happiness from your daily walk.)
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Some people experience those out-of-the-blue, muscle-clenching cramps that leave you frozen until the pain resides. “If leg muscles cramp when walking, it could indicate the presence of a disease that has not yet been diagnosed like pulmonary disease or peripheral artery disease, (PAD)” says Jenna Yentes, PhD, assistant professor, department of biomechanics and associate director, nonlinear analysis core at the Center for Research in Human Movement Variability at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. (PAD is caused by a clogging of the arteries that supply the legs with blood; it is a risk factor for heart trouble, which is also due to clogged arteries.)
“Rather than thinking that this is just a sign of aging, it’s not normal and it’s better to speak to your doctor because even if you have a more serious health condition, early diagnosis is typically better.” Also, know your status. This can help when potential red flags arise and allow you to start effective treatments faster.
Stumbling over the occasional crack in the sidewalk is normal. But don’t write yourself off as clumsy if you have a regular habit of tripping.
“There can be a neurological undertone to tripping,” explains Dr. Schwartz. “Diabetic neuropathy is common—and commonly under-diagnosed.” As diabetes progresses the feet can become numb and a person may not feel temperature changes in their feet, or have a solid awareness of where their body is in space.
Eventually, this condition can become painful. Controlling blood sugar with exercise, healthy eating, and medication, if necessary, can reduce the risk of diabetic neuropathy.
If you’re power-walking with fast feet and pumping arms, then you should get out of breath. If you’re walking, even slowly, but it’s uphill or upstairs, it’s normal to end up huffing and puffing, too. But if you are walking slowly on flat terrain, or walking for just a short time before you start to feel breathless, that could be a warning sign that you have a heart or lung condition.
Many conditions can cause shortness of breath, including asthma or a respiratory infection. These conditions can make it tough to get enough oxygen. A common lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, also leaves those who have it at higher risk of falls, explains Yentes.
“You can do exercises such as pursed lip breathing to improve your lung function and be able to walk further or for longer periods,” she says. “But you should speak with a doctor and start with pulmonary rehabilitation so you can start an exercise program in a safe environment.”
A person who is feeling down, whether it’s from sad or stressful moments in life or due to diagnosed clinical depression is going to walk just like they feel. “If they have depression, their posture may be stooped or slumped and their gait slower, says Dr. Gritz.
Of course, walking and other types of exercise are one of the best antidotes for depression and a 2012 study published in Mental Health and Physical Activity showed that regular walking can result in measurable clinical improvements.
“Exercise is definitely one of the non-pharmacological treatments I recommend for depression,” explains Dr. Gritz. “In fact, we can tell when a patient is feeling better through these non-verbal indicators—they will tend to walk faster and with a lightness in their step.”
So, how much should you walk? The U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 to 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic activity, preferably spread throughout the week. If you’re just starting out, take it easier and shorter, and build up to longer harder sessions.
Before you start, make sure you have the best walking shoes for your feet.
- Jessica B. Schwartz PT, DPT, CSCS, a doctor of physical therapy for Physical Therapy To Go Physical Therapy to Go based in New York City, and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association
- Henry C. Hilario, DPM, a physician specializing in foot and ankle surgery at The Orthopaedic Clinic in the Willis-Knighton Health System in Shreveport, Louisiana
- Apta.org: "Find a PT"
- BMC Geriatrics: “Gluteal muscle composition differentiates fallers from non-fallers in community dwelling older adults”
- Experimental Gerontology: “The decline in skeletal muscle mass with aging is mainly attributed to a reduction in type II muscle fiber size”
- Clinical Interventions in Aging: “Fat infiltration in the gluteus minimus muscle in older adults”
- Mental Health and Physical Activity: “Walking for depression or depressive symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis”
- Barry Gritz, MD, a psychiatrist based in Houston
- Jenna Yentes, PhD, assistant professor, department of biomechanics and associate director, nonlinear analysis core at the Center for Research in Human Movement Variability at the University of Nebraska at Omaha