Defining Terms

Why treadmill walking is not exactly the same as walking

So, my daughter called me a while back to ask if I would go do a "lunch hour workout" with her at a local gym she'd begun to frequent.

Sure, I said, always thankful to spend a little daddy-daughter time.

I show up, ready to go. I have my cleanest pair of sweatpants on, a sleeveless t-shirt from like, the 80's, and my Chucky-T's laced for business!

"Oooohhhh, Dad...", my daughter says, shaking her head.



"Nothing..." still shaking her head. "C'mon... this way..." leading me to the treadmill department

And it was there, on that very day, and on that very treadmill, I made a startling discovery: Treadmills are misleading!

Here's why I say that.

My daughter and I 'walked' for 20 minutes at a pretty aggressive clip on our respective treadmills. I was breathing a little heavier, I suppose, and my heart rate, I'm sure, had elevated some, which me feel pretty good about myself (Like, hey! Pretty good for a grand-dude! That's what my grandkids call me. Anyway...)

When it was time to get off the machine, and walk to the next 'station', IT happened.

Treading on treadmills.

Walking suddenly felt... strange. Like, I had no sea legs. Walking on the regular floor after having been on the treadmill for a while was, in fact, an entirely different experience. It took me a few minutes to re-adjust to NORMAL walking. Immediately I knew I had a mystery to solve.

Q: Why, if treadmills are designed to simulate or rather, replicate, the walking experience, do I feel different when actually walking on the floor afterward? It should have been a seamless transition from one 'walking' to the other, not? (That's how we talk in Lancaster County.)

As we were getting ready to leave, I made my way back to the treadmill area, and watched some of the folks on the machines.

There they were, 'walking'. Putting one foot in front of the other, left-right-left-right and so on.

By all outward appearances, they were 'walking'. And that's when I realized, No! They're not! In fact, on a treadmill, half of the muscle groups used for normal walking are disengaged.

Here's why:

When we walk, a several-step process takes place (no pun intended).

First, our iliopsoas* (along with other hip flexors**) raise our knee forward, while the quadriceps extend the foot outward, and then we plant the foot. THEN, our glutes and other extensors pull the leg back behind us, projecting our bodies forward through space, while the other foot comes forward, plants itself, and so on.

We're walking!

BUT - on a treadmill, something different happens.

We raise the knee, extend the leg, plant the foot, and THE MACHINE BRINGS OUR LEG BACK BEHIND US! The glutes play little to no role in the second half of the process. They are, for all intents and purposes, off-line, and that's not good.

Muscles are designed to work in concert with other muscles.

In combination, they keep even, steady tension in our bodies. This, in conjunction with the fascial system, ultimately forms our shape (i.e., our posture). And, the extensor and flexor groups are a perfect example of this.

Both the extensor and flexor groups should be in equal strength and ability to help balance the other.

That's not what happens on a treadmill.

On a treadmill, the flexors are getting a workout, but not the extensors.

This especially matters because the flexors in today's sitting-all-the-time society are usually too short.

I don't just mean in a shortened position.

I mean, they're too short because they've adapted that way from too often being in a seated position. So, when you spend time on a treadmill, you're strengthening a group of muscles that are already contracted, while ignoring its counter-balance muscles altogether.

This creates an even greater imbalance which can often be the cause of low back pain.

(Note from Gina: The lack of extensor workout out also matters regarding the use of the pelvic floor muscles, with which they have an intimate and supportive relationship.)

Anyone who has trouble getting up out of a chair because they feel pain in the low back knows exactly what happens when those flexors pull forward on the vertebrae, instead of opening up and releasing.

And that's why, after only twenty minutes, my body had to readjust to using all muscles again to walk. Ta-Da! Mystery solved!

But, now I'm faced with an even greater mystery: How come no one has ever noticed this discrepancy?

And, even greater than that, how do I get people, en masse, to get off their treadmills and walk for real? To do the natural instead of the artificial replication? To realize that their machine, while creating the appearance of walking, lacks the true power thereof?

In the meantime, I'm gonna take a walk.

 * Lots of discussions have occurred between Gina and Bill about the accuracy of the word, 'iliopsoas'. Here's an article by a doctor framing that debate.

** What flexors and extensors are: A flexor muscle is one that will decrease the angle of a joint when contracting. Like the action of the bicep on the elbow joint. An extensor will open up the angle of a joint when contracting, like the tricep on that same elbow joint.

In the case of the hip joint, hip 'flexors' will raise the femur, creating a small angle between the thigh relative to the pelvis. The glutes and hamstirings, when contracting, will bring the femur back and behind the pelvis, creating 'extension' in the hip joint.

It's all relative, my friend!





Stretching: The Truth

.. what it is, what it isn't, and how to do it effectively (without injuring yourself..!)

Why do we feel a need to clarify something so simple and seemingly self-explanatory?

Well, along with everything else regarding movement, it's become a topic we have to discuss at all because our lifestyles have made it pretty much optional.

Stretching as an exercise seems to have been around since ancient Rome, Greece, and of course, India, as with yoga.

Yet there are those who would say that stretching, as most of us do it, is not only unnatural (as compared to say, 'pandiculation', a type of active stretching that all animals with a spine do, like when yawning. So, here's your word for the day. You're welcome.)

And, of course, it is possible to stretch to the point of injury.

There is also the problem of the inversely proportional relationship between flexibility and joint stability .

In other words, one can reinforce the elasticity of a muscle/tendon structure into such a state as to become incapable of stabilizing a joint, as in the case of 'hypermobility')

So, you see, stretching can be a tricky business.

Part of the problem is that we are still trying to understand the optimal applications of exercise, but only from the perspective of our own sedentary culture, rather than within the broader context of human movement across all cultures and history.

Or, more to the point, what human movement would look like without the limitations of walls, floors, chairs, cars and other developments.

Our belief is that stretching has become a means of offsetting muscular adaptations that become tense and tight from a lack of well-rounded, whole body movement (I know, duh, right?)

However, one of the main arguments against stretching is that it really does nothing to offset any of this.

I will say that, as far as the waywe think most people approach stretching, this is probably true.

We believe, like with many of our' culture's approaches to health, concepts have become so oversimplified and misunderstood as to be use inappropriately.

So, regarding this particular practice,we 'd like to offer a few basic bits of info:

1) Not everything 'tight' needs to be stretched. In other words,  a 'tight' muscle can be due to it being chronically contracted (shortened) or chronically overstretched (lengthened).

2) Stretching a muscle should not be applied in a manner similar to reshaping a wool sweater that got caught in the dryer. Going to the burn is rarely a good idea, and is what can lead to tendon tears, scar tissue and even greater restriction.

3) The elasticity of a muscle (the capacity for it to actively extend longer than its resting state, and then return to that length) is determined by sarcomeres - long, fibrous proteins within the muscle fibers that slide past each other when a muscle contracts or relaxes.

A muscle that is held or used in a perpetually shortened position (like a calf muscle) will actually adapt to being shorter through a process called sarcomerolysis, which is basically the body cannibalizing some of the sarcomeres, like taking links out of a chain. This allows for a more efficient neutral resting state, but also decreased elastic range.

4) It is possible, with consistent lengthening input to produce an effect called sarcomerogenesis, which is the regrowth of sarcomeres back into the chain.

The key here is consistent input.

As we've stated, stretching alone will not typically produce any lasting changes.

In fact, passive stretching (that is, extending a relaxed muscle into a stretched position with no other muscles countering with contraction - think of stretching your quadriceps by pulling on your foot, as opposed to contracting your hamstrings to lift your foot toward your butt) is more likely to trigger a guarding reaction which only reinforces a tight muscle.

I do use passive and active stretches in my restorative exercise work as a means of illustrating what's really happening when you move one body part away from another, or what happens when you 'cant'.

But, two things about this:

1) I do stress the need for consistent 'elongation' input. In other words, our bodies adapt to what they're doing most frequently. We do the stretches, both for the purpose of supplementation, and to know what we should be moving.

But the changes (read: adaptations) really only occur when we are using our muscles in extension throughout the day. If you're doing your calf stretches regularly, great! But, if you're still wearing heels 8 hours of the day, you're kinda working against yourself.

2) I also teach mindful passive stretching. Functionally, we have two muscle lengths: the actual end range where any further stretch will create a tear. Before that, is the 'easy barrier' - the place where muscle tension starts to register and the reactive guarding mechanisms perk up. Between these is the sweet spot where either you will reinforce those guarding mechanisms by trying to blow through them, or you can relax and ease into the tension mindfully and allow the barriers to release.

This requires practice and some degree of body awareness which varies from person to person, and again, will not necessarily create instant changes, but will be a lot more effective over time.

(PS - another restriction to gaining length may be the presence of scar tissue in a ligament or tendon which may benefit from a technique known as 'cross fiber friction' - which Bill is skilled at providing or teaching his clients to do.)

So, while we're not ready to toss stretching out as archaic and misguided, we do hope this helps you apply it more effectively.

Want to learn more?

See our listings page for more info on restorative movement classes and workshops!

Ditch the workout and just move!

There is a prevailing mindset these days concerning health, fitness and well-being that has spawned what is probably a multi-billion dollar industry.


As a result, most of our clients are people who injure themselves trying to get healthy.

Advances in technology allow a satellite to monitor our heart rate, our breathing, our blood pressure and count how many steps we've taken from the car to the desk. And yet, the actual understanding of fitness seems to be getting lost.

In short, we're buying products and paying for services that promise to help us reach goals. Those goals are determined by the standard the industry sets for itself. (Example: If I want to sell weigh benches, I want the public to think that big muscles = fitness. Or, if I sell cosmetics I want you to believe that smooth skin = health.)

But, what is 'fitness'? And what is 'health'?

I've worked with guys who were so muscle bound that they lacked endurance. Where they 'fit'?

I look at the guys and gals on the covers of health magazines and I question, "How do I know they're healthy?" They might have picture-perfect bodies but are dealing with "diseases of captivity"* - high blood pressure, thyroid problems, diabetes. And I wonder, what's their range of motion? I really don't know.

We're offered health idols based on an appearance, and often, little else.

And, based on that standard, we're sold products like treadmills and elliptical machines, free-weights and dumb-bells, and exercise programs - all designed to strengthen our muscles in an attempt to conform our shape to the statue ... err .. standard of what fitness 'looks like'.

In the next few weeks, we would like to challenge the conventional approach to fitness and wellness. In particular, we want to examine the differences between 'exercise' and 'movement', as well as between what good health 'looks like' and how it actually manifests.

One of the most exciting directions Gina and my practices(s) have taken recently is the discovery (by Gina) of Katy Bowman's work, and her emphasis on 'nutritious movement',

We've learned and continue to learn that health and fitness have a lot to do with being able to function naturally in a natural environment.

Our intention is to present insights concerning the body's design (anatomy) and function (physiology) in a clear and understandable way - hopefully without your eyes glazing over.

We believe that the better informed our clients are, the more equipped they are to know what's actually supportive for them, instead of taking the industry's word for it. The great thing about knowledge is that it equips you to ask better questions!

We'll talk about muscles and how they're designed to function, and the role posture plays in tendons, ligaments and whether or not it makes sense to go to the gym after sitting all day.

We'll also offer practical suggestions to reclaim movement opportunities throughout your day.

You'll be amazed at how much natural movement there is to be experienced, free-of-charge and without carving out any extra time in the day to do it.

For example: When walking from my car to my office, I've begun walking on the curb instead of the blacktop... ya know, like we did as kids!

... and why do we stop doing this?

... and why do we stop doing this?

Why do we stop doing this as grown-ups? I don't know.

But, I do know that a simple thing like balancing on a slight curb brings movement ... natural movement ... into my otherwise non-movemental day, (And, yeah, I did just make that word up).

It costs me no money, it costs me no time, and I gain the benefit of engaging my core muscles, all the while, starting off my work day doing something fun!

That's what we're talking about. Reclaiming movement as opposed to (or in addition to) 'exercising'.

Here are some upcoming topics that are sure to challenge the Conventional Fitness Paradigm:

  • What is meant by 'nutritious movement'?
  • What is muscular strength really?
  • Does lifting weights provide the same benefit (nutrition) to the body as climbing a tree?
  • Why treadmill walking is NOT the same as walking outside
  • The difference between isolationist and holistic workouts
  • How can small things like walking on a curb possibly be as effective as a workout routine?
  • But your ____ hurts, and what if you can't do a lot of the stuff we suggest?

We also invite you (and this is important) to send us your thoughts and questions. (You can comment below, or privately.)

There's no sense in us just talking about what WE think is important.

As we explain the benefits of natural movement, we need to hear from you concerning the challenges and difficulties of moving more and sitting less in your every day life.

Is it a deal? Good. :)

==> Here's some homework until the next time: Pay attentionto how often 'Fitness', 'Healthy', 'Wellness' and 'Health Care' are used in commercials, logos, and other forms of advertising, and ask yourself, 'What are they REALLY selling me?" What images are being held up as the ideal?

Write your answers down and hang on to them. Throughout this series, we'll have you come back to this and draw comparisons between what they're selling and what natural movement offers.

Next week: Working Out vs Working Outside.

In the meantime, stay outta the news!

(*A phrase coined by biomechanist Katy Bowman, to describe the health conditions that may have a strong root in a sedentary lifestyle, reinforced by an environment that doesn't require us to move much. ~ G)