What Is Walking Asymmetry? Experts Explain Why It’s Key To Address


Walking is the easiest thing you could do. One would think so, at least. All it involves is putting one foot in front of the other. And yet, if you tend to favor one side of your body as you stroll, you might end up throwing yourself out of whack. This is what’s known as walking asymmetry, and it’s something that can have a bigger impact on your health than you might realize.

Walking asymmetry means you take a slightly different step with each leg, says Christy Conroy, PT, MSPT, NCS, a physical therapist and center manager at Brooks Rehabilitation Motion Analysis Center. “Perhaps your stepping stride is longer on one side than the other, or you don’t stand on one leg quite as long as the other as you walk,” she tells Bustle. “This can occur for many reasons, such as uneven leg lengths, altered foot positions on one side, changes in the alignment of the back or pelvis, or simply from pain that alters your stepping pattern.”

Luckily, this is something you can check right on your iPhone. To get the intel, simply waltz around town with your phone in your pocket — it’s best if it’s in a front pocket at waist height — and then open the Health app when you get home. If you have an iPhone 8 or later with an iOS 15, you’ll see a breakdown of walking stats like double support time (aka the time you spend on two feet), speed, step length, asymmetry, and steadiness. Walking asymmetry will show up as a percentage of time that you took asymmetrical steps whilst strolling, so the lower the number the better. Note that this asymmetry affects most people to some degree: Research has found that young adults have 5-15% of asymmetry in their walk while older adults exhibit 15-20%.

You can sometimes tell if you have asymmetry based on how you feel, too. If you have a limp, feel slightly off balance while walking, or if you start to experience pain in just one hip or ankle, then you might have some asymmetry going on, says Lalitha McSorley, PT, the lead physical therapist at Brentwood Physiotherapy Calgary. Here’s what else you need to know, plus what you can do to get a more symmetrical gait.

Why Walking Symmetry Is Important

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Chances are you walk a lot throughout the day. Whether you’re commuting to work, walking your dog, or strolling through Trader Joe’s, your daily steps add up fast. And if you’re slightly off balance as you take each step, it can start to throw your body out of alignment.

“Asymmetrical walking can lead to pain anywhere in the body,” Conroy says. “Anytime your foot hits the ground, it leads to a chain reaction all the way up.” For example, an asymmetrical step — or even a problem with your foot — can be the root cause of back pain, she says. Its ability to indicate when something’s off in the body is why walking is often used as a barometer for overall health.

The lack of balance in your gait can also lead to other types of issues. “If you’re constantly putting stress on one side of your body, you’re more likely to suffer an injury when something unexpected happens,” McSorley says — like if you trip, for example. If you start to stumble and happen to land on your weaker leg, the chance that you’ll fall or injure yourself is pretty high, she explains. But if you have two equally strong legs, you’ll be more likely to catch yourself.

Additionally, having an asymmetrical gait can make you less efficient when you walk or run, she says. “You’ll tire out faster and not be able to move as quickly as you could if you were more evenly balanced,” McSorley says. “When you walk and run with an asymmetry, your body is forced to work in a way that it’s not optimal.” As your body fights against the asymmetry, it’ll start to become sore, tired, and it can even lead to injury.

Then there’s your posture. McSorley says an uneven gait can impact how straight you stand — or how easy it is to remain upright.

How To Fix Walking Asymmetry

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There are things you can do to make those steps more symmetrical. Here’s what the experts recommend.

Keep Your Feet Parallel

Want to lower your walking asymmetry score? According to McSorley, one of the simplest tricks is to pay more attention to your feet. “Focus on keeping your feet pointed in the same direction and making sure your steps are even,” she says. The goal is to keep them parallel, even when you’re standing.

If you aren’t sure if your feet are pointing forward, walk towards a mirror. “This might help you catch problems and address them before they develop further,” she says. Every time you see your feet pointing out or in, adjust again so that they’re parallel.

Work On Your Flexibility

Conroy recommends working on your flexibility with leg, hip, and glute stretches, especially if you’re more flexible on one side than the other. To test which side of your body is tighter, sit down and try to lift your feet up toward your nose. Do both legs raise to an equal height or is one side lower/tighter than the other? If so, that’s the side you want to focus on loosening up.

Strengthen Your Legs

It’ll also help to do exercises that target your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, says McSorley, since walking asymmetry can stem from muscle weakness and imbalances. She recommends focusing on isolated leg exercises, like single-leg extensions and leg curls, so that each side of your body gets equal attention.

“Isolated exercises are highly effective for improving muscle imbalances because they target specific areas and allow the body to work on correcting any issues,” McSorley adds. “You will be able to tell almost immediately which side is weaker.” Work with as much weight and do as many reps as your weaker side is limited to, and over time it’ll correct asymmetries, she says.

You can also do lunges. “Lunges specifically target the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves,” McSorley says. “Start with your weaker side. If you can only do seven repetitions with your weaker side, only do seven repetitions on your strong side.”

Do Balance Exercises

McSorley also recommends standing on a wobble or balance board for a few minutes a day to improve your balance. This tool trains you to remain steady and also works both sides of your body equally so you don’t rely too heavily on one side or the other as you stroll. Note that if you have muscle imbalances, it’ll take time to build the weaker side up, McSorley says, but you should start to see a subtle difference in a week or two.

See A Doctor

If you’re experiencing consistent pain on one side of your body and notice walking asymmetry, you might want to make an appointment with your doc. “Many things are difficult to assess on yourself, so it is important to see a professional who can help determine the origin of your pain or asymmetry,” Conroy says. A doctor or physical therapist will check your gait and prescribe a set of exercises or stretches to help set things right.

They might even suggest that you use shoe inserts to address any leg differences or imbalances. If you end up using an orthotic for your shoe, Conroy says you’ll notice changes in your walking asymmetry pretty much immediately.

Studies referenced:

Aminiaghdam, S. (2016). Posture alteration as a measure to accommodate uneven ground in able-bodied gait. PLoS ONE, 12(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0190135

Betteridge, C. (2021). Proposed objective scoring algorithm for walking performance, based on relevant gait metrics: the Simplified Mobility Score (SMoS™)-observational study. J Orthop Surg Res. doi: 10.1186/s13018-021-02546-8.

Franettovich M, Hides J, Mendis MD, et al. Muscle imbalance among elite athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2011;45:348-349.

Kruijf, M. (2015). Chronic joint pain in the lower body is associated with gait differences independent from radiographic osteoarthritis. Gait Posture. PMID: 26210905 DOI: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2015.06.193

Laroche, DP. (2012). Strength asymmetry increases gait asymmetry and variability in older women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31825e1d31.

Ramakrishnan, T. (2018). Comparing gait with multiple physical asymmetries using Consolidated Metrics. Frontiers in Neurorobotics, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbot.2018.00002

Śliwowski, R. (2014). The Effects of Individualized Resistance Strength Programs on Knee Muscular Imbalances in Junior Elite Soccer Players. PLoS ONE, 10(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0144021

Smith D, Noorbhai. H. Prevalence of muscle imbalance and its potential influence on injury among female acrobatic dancersBMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2022;8:e001322. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2022-001322

Zahraee, M. H. (2013). Analysis of Asymmetry of the Forces Applied on the Lower Limb in Subjects with Nonspecific Chronic Low Back Pain. BioMed Research International, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/289491

Sources:

Christy Conroy, PT, MSPT, NCS, physical therapist, center manager at Brooks Rehabilitation Motion Analysis Center

Lalitha McSorley, PT, lead physical therapist at Brentwood Physio



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