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.

"What?"

woman_on_treadmill.jpg

"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!