Idiopathic Toe Walking

From time to time you may notice people around you who walk on their toes, heels always a-hover. You may remark to yourself that this seems out of the ordinary. This phenomenon is referred to as "idiopathic toe-walking," idiopathic meaning "no one actually knows why this happens." I've worked with a few people who exhibit this behavior, and what I've come to realize is this: toe walking is a useful adaption to help bodies cope with how unnaturally hard and flat the surfaces we walk on are. Our inherent human gait mechanism supplied by our very structure contains a shock absorbing nuance. When a heel strikes the ground, there is an impact; that force is carried up into the body, and causes a displacement in the hips. You can observe this as side-to-side hip sway. Walking so that with each step, your hips move from side to side and all around is not merely an aspect of character--it is a body's way of offsetting the impact of bearing its weight down into the ground while walking. In bodies who do not exhibit this contralateral (side-to-side) hip movement, where, then, does the force of the heal strike end up? In my experience, the energy is held in the hips themselves, rather than carried through them. Many biomechanists and movement educators agree that a lack of hip movement can be very detrimental to joint health, and the health of your structure in general; it is well-known, for example, that hip stiffness is contra-indicated with knee pain, and in my own observation, ankle problems.  

In our society, most people have lost sight of this shock-absorbing style of walking. Women fear that if they walk around shaking their bums everywhere they go, they will attract unwanted attention, or be viewed as floozy. Men know that if they walk in the way I am endorsing, they will be labeled as homosexuals. There is a cultural prejudice against this fluid style of movement, a prejudice that has led us to abandon our natural shock-absorbing walking pattern. As this prejudice has been working its way into our culture, we work fastidiously to cover the naturally soft surface of earth with unnaturally hard and flat material. Where does that leave us? It leaves us in a position of being overly sensitized to the impact of our footfall on hard surfaces, that's where! 

Tile and concrete are unnaturally flat, hardened surfaces… surfaces that are not conducive to fluid human movement--especially if the humans in question lack the adaptability in their hips to displace the brute impact of X amount of pounds coming down hard on an even harder surface over and over again--for decades. Literally all of our ancestors had more ground softness, as well as variation in ground texture and contour, than we do now. Even somewhat recently in post-industrialized cities cobblestone paths provided a more varied contour than what we are left with today. The humans of centuries and millennia past walked on soft dirt, always varied. I'm describing ground surfaces that share the shock absorption of our heel strike. A footprint is a great example of this: All the force that goes into printing your foot on sand or mud or soft dirt, that is the amount of force that your body is forced to absorb when walking on hard ground. Each step on concrete is an impact your hips and knees must endure. So much impact, and on top of that, you've more than likely lost your biological mechanism for coping with such force (hip sway, and other biomechanical aspects of fluid movement). Not only that, but natural ground (even granite) is infinitely varied, meaning that each step you take always results in different articulations between your joints. The flatness of our environment itself means that walking always provides the exact same force in the exact same way to your ankles, knees, hips, and back. It is as if flatness itself were a plane-dimensional force imprinted on your human frame. It is akin to what causes a repetitive stress injury, and I would argue that many of the ailments people see me for are actually repetitive stress injuries resulting from inadequate qualities of fluid movement across unnaturally hard surfaces (we will leave the topic of footwear aside for now). 

Most people are not aware that hip displacement and fluid movement are options disposable to us should we feel the need to diminish the forces borne unto our frames by the infinite collision of foot to concrete. Is it far-fetched to believe that idiopathic toe-walking is a hard-and-flat cobined is a coping-adaptation for those with rigid movement? After all, when standing on the forefoot, the foot acts as a lever, making it so that much more movement, and thus, shock absorption, is possible in the ankle. Although on some level one can tell that this gait pattern is an aberration from the norm, we must admit that there is more fluidity, or at the very least, buoyancy, in those who express this movement pattern. It is a way of recruiting an extra joint to share the brute impact of your step, so the other joints higher up don't have to bear as much of the force-impact. 

What are some actionable steps you can take to join the battle against hard+flat? Walk outside in the dirt more. Pad the floors in your home, with carpets, rugs, or foam puzzle piece mats. Learn to walk so that your hips sway. Cultivate awareness of the forces at play in your body when you are moving. Disavow the proliferation of concrete.

Tags: idiopathic toe walking, gait patterns, barefoot, hips, ankles, walking, culture, concrete