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Take That Step

Have you ever thought about what it takes to walk? When a healthy person takes a few steps, they most likely do not think of activating certain muscles or the individual processes just to put one foot in front of another. It takes multiple phases and over 200 different muscles. This activity that you do subconsciously, is actually very complex.

If we are to simply break it down into the separate phases, it’s often categorized like this:

  • toe-off (when the foot leaves the ground)
  • swing (or the time it is in suspension)
  • heel strike (when the heel comes into contact with the ground)
  • support (when the weight of the body is borne by the leg)
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If we were to describe walking based on those 200 muscles, it would be something like this.

The muscles most involved in walking are:

1. The quadriceps. The body’s biggest muscles, they raise and push forward the thigh and leg.

2. The hamstrings. These contract, pulling your leg backward, propelling the rest of you forward.

3.  The buttock muscles. Their job is to complete the backward contraction of the step. When these muscle masses sag, this shows that they are not being used enough for their primary function, which is walking.

4.  The stomach muscles. These contract with each step forward.

5. The calf muscles. These are smaller but are among the most heav4ily used muscles when you take a step.

Secondary muscles that are also involved are:

6.  The pelvis’s stabilizing muscles. These form a muscular crown around the pelvis and include the external abductors, the internal adductors, the abdominal muscles at the front, and the spinal muscles at the back.

7.  The symmetrical tibialis anterior muscles in front of the calf muscles. These raise the foot up so that it does not flatten or scrape the ground as you take a stride. Walking greatly develops these muscles.

8.  The arm and shoulder muscles. These contribute less than the others, but they can be used a great deal in power walking.

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Stand up. Take a few steps. See if you can identify each of these pieces of your step. Do you notice the “swing” phase? Can you feel the different muscles doing their job? Although we might not be able to collect much data just looking at our own steps, in that short timeframe, current biological models can describe, to the millisecond, the rotation and flexion angles of the joints (hip, knee, ankle, foot), the forces exerted on them and the electrical activity of muscles, etc. There is a lot of data that we can get from a motion we take for granted and see as simple.

While recuperating from previous injuries (accident prone person here), I’ve had times where I had to think about each individual step that I took. It is amazing how easy walking can be for healthy adults when it is also so complex and can go wrong in so many ways. Over the last year and a half, I had gotten used to taking daily walks. At one point I was walking up to 5 miles a day. Then when I got pregnant my mileage significantly decreased, and in the last month or two of pregnancy, it had become extremely difficult for me to simply walk around my apartment.

It is in these moments when I think about people who walk extremely long distances. These days, those people are rare, and the common man often sees them as crazy. Who would choose to walk tens of miles a day through rough terrain on a mountain when they could simply admire that mountain from a resort? Who would walk the hundreds of miles of the Camino de Santiago when we have perfectly good cars? Those who make these choices do so because they have a purpose. For the hiker it may be proving to themselves that they can, self-empowerment. Others may enjoy these types of activities. (Not me.) For those walking the Camino, it is a reason of faith. This pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James the Great is undertaken by hundreds of thousands each year.

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As much as I love my faith, it is extremely difficult to picture myself walking hundreds of miles for it. I live a relatively easy life in that regard, but one amazing Saint did not have that luxury, St. Kateri Tekawitha.

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When she was four, Kateri lost her parents and little brother in a smallpox epidemic that left her disfigured and half blind. She then lived with her uncle who had also taken in three Jesuit missionaries even though the missionaries and their cause were not well liked in the village. Kateri was moved by the Catholic message they brought and finally at age 19 got the courage to convert. Her conversion put her in danger, though, as long as she lived in this village which opposed Christianity. On the advice of a priest, Kateri stole away one night and began a 200-mile walking journey to a Christian Indian village at Sault St. Louis, near Montreal where she would be safe.

Although I do not foresee myself walking hundreds of miles any time soon, especially not for the purpose of religious freedom, Kateri’s journey is an inspiration to me. How many times in our lives do we refuse to take the necessary steps to fully live out our faith just because they are difficult? What do we find so difficult? Is it harder than walking hundreds of miles? We must be inspired by Kateri’s strength of will and physical endurance to face those challenges. Our faith and eternal salvation are worth making those sacrifices.

On this, her feast day, St. Kateri Tekawitha, pray for us.

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