We learn to walk as toddlers, and by the time we’re adults, we are more or less experts in the field. We have learned to adjust to just about any situation or terrain. Whether we face sand, snow, or ice or wear flip flops, sneakers, or high heels, we manage to get through it all. What accounts for the adjustments we make when walking in different situations, and why do we all do it? Science tells us it is in the name of energy conservation. Basically, our bodies adjust so that we expend the least amount of energy as we walk in any situation.
Considering energy conservation in stroke rehabilitation
After a stroke, it takes more energy to walk. And many patients make adjustments to their gait in order to conserve energy. Traditionally, rehabilitation methods focus on getting patients to walk in a more symmetrical way so that it looks more normal, but should that be the goal?
Researchers from Maryland make the argument that maybe instead of therapy focusing on improving gait, it should focus on minimizing the amount of energy needed to walk. That means rehabilitation would be about getting you to walk efficiently, not perfectly.
Is efficiency the way to go?
The researchers tested different walking situations on people who hadn’t had a stroke and on people recovering from a stroke. What they found was that even people who hadn’t had a stroke will walk in an asymmetrical way if it conserves energy. And they found that when stroke patients focused on walking more symmetrically, it did not reduce their effort. In fact, when these patients let go of walking perfectly symmetrical, they saved energy. Sometimes that even meant they walked faster.
These findings change the way that we think about rehabilitation. It turns out that training towards a “normal” gait might not be your best bet after all. Instead, training towards a pattern that requires the least energy will give you better results when it comes down to walking further and faster. We must mention that this is not the case for all stroke patients. If you experience a lot of pain or severe balance problems, you should work with your therapist on these issues first.
Energy conservation approach
If you are wondering if this approach might work for you, try out our Strokemark walking course. Our program uses this energy conservation approach to get you to improve your walking by going further and faster. Download our app today!
The lead author of this original article is Ryan T. Roemmich from the Center for Movement Studies, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, MD.