Take a Hike
Phil Cameron | Friday Aug. 1st, 2014
Living in Bozeman gives us wonderful opportunities to get outside and enjoy the beautiful outdoors and wild areas within minutes of our front doors. Whether it is a short trip up the “M” or an all day affair along the top of the Ridge there is something for everyone and all levels of adventure.
Hiking or walking however does more for our bodies then just stretching the legs and giving us an opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. Our nervous system is programmed by the cross crawl pattern that our body uses when it walks. As we step forward with our right leg our left arm swings forward at the same time, and then repeats vise versa. This cross crawl pattern is how we develop and maintain good neurological connections within our bodies to keep our bodies in balance.
Our bodies work by constantly adapting to change, which then keeps our body in homeostasis (balance). Homeostasis is the goal of every living being on the planet, it is not special to humans. Nature seeks this balance between external and internal environments, food sources, predators and pray, and any biological system you can think of. The better our bodies are at adaption the greater our ability is to survive. Humans have been blessed with wonderful adaptation abilities, which is why you find humans living all over the world in many different environments.
However, it is not enough to just be programed with the ability to adapt and survive. We need to put these skills to work, allowing them to work to keep our bodies strong and healthy. The old adage “if you don’t use it you lose it” pertains specifically to our nervous system. However keeping your nervous system tuned up is actually easier than you may think.
Getting back to walking, the balance of what happens in your brain is directly related to how you walk. Understanding that the nervous system works as a series of inputs and outputs is step number one. We have nerve fibers that collect information from our sensory nervous system (sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch) and those nerve fibers travel to our brain to tell us about our surrounding environment. Our brain then processes the incoming information, evaluates it, and then sends a signal out to the body to have it respond appropriately. For example, if you touch a hot stove, you pull your hand away quickly, if you smell something tasty cooking in the kitchen you get hungry and your mouth starts to salivate preparing you for eating. What is really amazing is every signal that comes from your brain has a connection that will eventually end up in a muscle somewhere in your body causing a motor response.
Because your body is so connected, the motor response of the nervous system gives us a very clear and accurate picture about what is happening on the inside of the body by seeing what is happening on the outside. By understanding the body’s connections; different pains, postures, or movement patterns often can give us clues to what is going wrong inside. A classic example of this is during a heart attack a person will feel pain in the left arm, however it is not the left arm that has the problem it is the referral of pain from the heart, alerting us to the onset of ischemia of the cardiac tissue and that we need to get to the hospital ASAP in order to survive.
When we walk we generate motor patterns in our nervous system that are essential for balancing how our brain functions. To move one step in life is a biomechanical/biochemical miracle and you should always remember that. The amount of information that it takes to get those signals working correctly is mind blowing. This becomes unfortunately apparent when we witness a person who has had stroke, and can no longer do what seems so easy to the rest of us. When we walk we continually update the program information in our brain to get rid of old data and update new data.
However walking just isn’t walking. Let me explain. When I’m talking about walking I’m talking about the biomechanical and physiological phenomenon that creates propulsion to get you from point A to point B. But at the same time you are moving from A to B you are also creating neurological signals that integrate in the nervous system. So walking isn’t walking if you are not walking correctly. If you are holding the dog on a leash and not swinging your arms, or talking on the phone holding it to your ear while you walk you are not engaging the proper nerve signals needed to fire the brain on all cylinders. You start to create bad signals into your brain from the input signal of a short stride or an arm not swinging, which then creates bad output signals creating imbalances. If this happens only once in a while its does not create a big consequence, but over a long period of time it can be a catastrophe.
When you go for a walk make sure to follow these simple rules to ensure you are engaging your nervous system correctly. First make sure to have comfortable well fitting foot wear. Foot pain will cause altered mechanics or a short stride as you try to avoid the pain. High heals look good but are bad for your body so treat them as a vice and only wear them on special occasions. Do not carry anything in your hands or put your hands in your pockets when you are walking. Let your arms swing freely keeping pace with your legs. Do not shuffle but step confidently with your toes pointing in the direction you are going. Most importantly breathe from your diaphragm. You should be breathing from your diaphragm always, letting your stomach muscles relax and your ribs expanding as wide as they can. We live at the bottom of a sea of air, so breathe deeply and make sure the lungs are working at full capacity. We breathe 14,000 times a day so make sure to do it correctly.
By walking correctly you help balance many important aspects of your health and your brain. To get the optimal health benefits from walking it is recommended you walk between 30-45 minutes per day, but it is ok to walk longer if you have the time. So next time you are out enjoying the wonderful outdoors or even a leisurely walk around town, remember all the wonderful health benefits you are getting, not only for your heart and lungs and cardiovascular system, but also helping to recharge your brain and nervous system and keeping them healthy for the rest of your life.