Why Walking Symmetry is Critical to Your Gait and Health

Humans are asymmetrical. One eye can be larger or smaller than the other, an ear higher or lower. Our heart, for example, is positioned more on the left than the right. Our walking patterns are no different—perfect symmetry is unlikely, and some degree of asymmetry is considered healthy. 

Regarding our walking, symmetry/asymmetry refers to the bilateral coordination of our legs and feet; in other words, how our right and left legs work together when we walk. Assessing walking or “gait” symmetry involves determining the stride lengths and widths of the right and left legs and patterns of weight distribution throughout the right and left steps. The percent of the time one foot moves slower or quicker than the other foot is another key factor. In a perfectly symmetrical walk, this data would be identical from right to left legs, but for most of us, there is a degree of variation between our two sides.

The degree of our walking asymmetry is an important indicator of overall health. In younger adults, a healthy degree of walking asymmetry falls between 5-15 percent, while for older adults, 15-20 percent is considered normal. No matter your age, when it comes to walking health, the more symmetrical your walk, the better. A high, unhealthy degree of asymmetry in walking—anything outside of the 5-15 or 15-20 percent ranges—can indicate or exacerbate underlying injuries or asymmetries in strength, and it can even be an early symptom of disease. 

What Causes Walking Asymmetry?

There are many potential causes of walking asymmetry. While the reasons vary in severity, they all require attention, which makes attending to your walking symmetry a great way to check in with your overall health.

Walking asymmetry may result from the following:

  • Discrepancies in the structure of your right and left legs, such as a more extended right or left femur
  • Strength imbalances, like a stronger right quadriceps muscle
  • Limb dominance (i.e., preferring one side over the other)
  • Arthritis in the joints of your lower body
  • Cerebellar disorders, which affect coordination and balance
  • Foot problems, like corns, calluses, sores, or warts
  • Unaddressed injuries, including broken bones, sprains, or tendinitis
  • Movement disorders, including Parkinson’s disease
  • Neurological diseases, including multiple sclerosis
  • Vision problems

Why is Walking Symmetry Important?

When the degree of walking asymmetry is high and becomes habitual, it can predispose walkers to injury or exacerbate existing injuries. Consistently favoring one leg over the other will overwork the muscles of one leg and underwork the muscles of the other, leading to overuse and strain on one side and weakness or progressive atrophy on the other. 

While seemingly less severe than the motor or neurological disorders that can contribute to asymmetry, the imbalances in muscular strength that can cause and further entrench asymmetrical walking can be extremely serious—asymmetries in strength have been linked to increased fall risks, especially in older adults. Asymmetrical walking can also contribute to harmful postural adaptations, such as dropping the head and neck forward, which can create long-term stress and strain as our body attempts to support the weight of our head. 

Understanding the Data Behind Symmetry

If you learn that you are walking asymmetrically, it’s essential to examine this asymmetry holistically and in context.

To understand how walking symmetry may impact your walking health, it’s important to use dynamic assessments like the gait-analysis technology found in Baliston shoes, to detect variations in your walk.

Baliston’s footwear service helps to assess any asymmetry in the larger context of your other movement patterns and overall health, providing you insights and recommendations to help relieve pain, reduce fatigue, and prevent injury.

In addition to determining the degree of your walking asymmetry, you will also want to consider the following factors. 

Consistency of Asymmetry

Does the degree of your walking asymmetry remain constant? There may be no cause for concern if you are consistent in your asymmetry. However, even if the degree of asymmetry is consistent, it’s crucial to discern if this degree has changed suddenly. It is normal for our walking patterns to shift and change as we age. Still, a sizable, sudden change may indicate a more serious underlying issue, such as an unaddressed injury on one side or a worsening chronic condition like arthritis. Even more serious, one of the first symptoms of neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis is difficulty walking due to muscle weakness, cramping, rigidity, and discoordination of movements, which can all manifest in changes to symmetry.

Context is Key

Where are you, and what are you doing when the asymmetry occurs? There could be environmental or other reasons you’re noticing asymmetry in your walking. If you walk outside for exercise, is the path or pavement sloped heavily in one direction? This could be why you notice asymmetry—your body is simply navigating an uneven surface. Alternatively, did you recently start carrying a heavy bag on one side of your body? This, too, will impact how your body mobilizes to manage the uneven load. Other biometric data such as double support time (the amount of time both feet are on the ground) can also provide important context to the bigger picture of your walking symmetry.

How to Improve Walking Symmetry

It is unlikely that you’ll eliminate asymmetry from your walking pattern entirely, but there are ways you can improve your walking symmetry to better support your walking health. One of the most effective ways to move towards symmetry is to address any underlying strength imbalances. Incorporating unilateral exercises, which train one limb at a time as opposed to both at the same time (for example, a split squat as opposed to a traditional, double-leg squat), are an excellent way to correct muscular imbalances.

Another key to improving your walking symmetry is to focus on your posture. This means to stand tall with shoulders back, down and relaxed, with your pelvis in a neutral position. Do not lean backwards. If you are carrying a load, try to distribute the weight evenly between the left and right sides of your body. 

Your walk provides critical information about your overall health and well-being, and your walking symmetry is an essential piece of this puzzle. The more symmetrical your walk, the more efficient and functional your walking pattern is, and the healthier your body will be.

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