Gait exercises help develop or maintain a functional walking pattern. According to a May 2003 “Clinical Rehabilitation” study led by Hiroyuki Shimada, M.D., of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, performing gait exercises improved walking patterns in elderly individuals within 12 weeks. Frail, elderly participants who performed gait exercises for 40 minutes two to three times a week showed greater dynamic balance and gait functioning improvements than a separate group that only did balance exercises.
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Gait exercises can help improve a variety of abnormal walking conditions. Exercises are particularly encouraged for spastic gait that occurs with one-sided stiffness, which produces a foot-dragging walk. People with propulsive gait have a stopped and rigid posture with the head and neck bent forward. Walking with slightly bent knees and hips is known as scissor gait, because the knees and thighs cross in a scissor-like movement. Steppage gait occurs when the foot hangs and toes point down, which causes the toes to scrape along the ground. Waddling gait causes exaggerated side-to-side torso movements due to insufficient hip stabilization.
The objective of gait exercises is a functional gait pattern. You must have an adequate range of joint mobility, which enables your joints to move your muscles through a sufficient range of motion for walking. Gait exercises aim to improve muscle-activation timing, which involves the time intervals that occur between each heel's contact with the ground. Functional gait patterns also depend on unimpaired input from multiple sensory systems, including the visual, somatosensory and vestibular systems.
Gait exercises primarily target muscles that are responsible for walking. Weaknesses in these muscles can contribute to a variety of walking abnormalities. Hip extensors, including the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles, are responsible for straightening your hip joint while walking. The quadriceps muscles are the most prominent knee extensors, which straighten your legs. Calf muscles, including the soleus and gastrocnemius, are responsible for plantar flexion that occurs as you roll onto the front of your foot with each step. Dorsiflexor muscles, located at your shins, flex your ankle and point the top of your foot up each time you step forward.
Gait exercises include a variety of resistance and balancing movements important for walking. Standing on one foot while lifting a weighted knee up to your hips strengthens muscles responsible for moving your thigh forward while walking. Leg-extension movements involve straightening your legs against resistance while in a seated position. Placing a resistance band above or under the front of your foot adds resistance to dorsiflexion and plantar flexion movements, respectively. Gait exercise movements for balance include walking. Turning your head left and right, looking up and down or tilting it side to side while walking also helps to improve balance and support a functional gait.