Today, I want to talk about the connection between the brain, the eyes, and how we walk.
One of the most important drills that I’ve taught over the years, to both athletes, and people who are recovering from pain issues has been the use of what I call peripheral walking. Now, this is a weird-sounding term, but it’s really related to the idea that the body tends to follow the eyes.
Whenever we look into the visual system, there are a lot of different theories out there about how it works. But one of our favorites to discuss is this division of what’s called foveal vision and ambient vision. Foveal is when I’m looking at something; I’m trying to collect as much detail as possible.
Imagine reading a book and looking at each single letter. The ambient system is everything you’re not looking at. So, most of us would refer to that as peripheral vision or peripheral awareness.
Now why learning to walk and move through the world with good peripheral awareness is so important is because it has a dramatic and direct impact on posture via some neurologic mechanisms. So whenever we look at our eyes if I’m using my foveal vision, I’m looking at something and I’m really trying to get detail, my eyes will typically move together. That is called convergence. Convergence is driven by a part of the brainstem called the midbrain or mesencephalon. And what’s really fascinating about that area, is that when it’s activated, it causes the body to flex forward. It facilitates flexion, which is why most of us,
whenever we’re trying to see something, will bring our head forward, we’ll bring our hands forward. Our body will lean forward.
So think about that and now imagine someone who’s out for a walk and because they have a balance issue or just through habit, instead of looking up they’re constantly looking down. They’re focusing on the ground, in front of them, to make sure that they don’t trip on a rock and fall or whatever. Over time
what you will see is the practice of constantly looking at the ground, will promote an increase in our flexion posture.
So, the use of peripheral vision or a peripheral awareness or the ambient visual system while walking is one of the coolest and easiest and most profound ways that we’ve ever found to re-educate the postural systems. Because whenever we look up and we relax and we use our ambient or peripheral visual system and we look in the distance. When we look in the distance, our eyes, diverge a little bit, meaning they move apart a little bit, and that part of the brain that controls that is called the pons, and guess what
the pons does? The pons promotes extension. It allows us to be more upright.
So whenever we look up and move through the world with a little bit better visual from a better visual standpoint, and we use more of our ambient system to know where we are as we’re moving.
The better it’s going to be typically for our overall posture and movement.
So how do you improve this? Well, this is simply a habitual practice routine.
I recommend that you start on a flat surface. If you’ve been looking down at the ground, every time you took a walk for the last 15 years, you know for 10,000 steps a day, it’s going to be scary. So you pick some flat surfaces, you get nice and comfortable. You can scan in the beginning to make sure there’s not a dog or a cat or a rock or something in your way. And then you’re going to consciously cause yourself to look up, breathe, notice the floor in front of you and take 10 to 15 steps forward and back and see how much fear it causes. Many people as soon as they start doing this, they go, “whoof, that’s a little uncomfortable.”
So we have to find the correct amount of threat for you so that you are making progress without it becoming overwhelming. So start on flat ground. After you’ve done some flat ground walking,
try some hills but typically paved or sidewalks in the beginning and then, as you are becoming more and more comfortable, with moving around, while keeping your head up and eyes out, then you can start adding in some trail hiking climbing or whatever to increase the challenge.
Now, finally, this does not mean that you never look down. We can constantly be checking up and down but what we’re trying to prevent is this over- fixation on what’s somewhere between two and six feet in front of us.
Head up, use your peripheral vision. If you need to you can dart the eyes down to check and make sure that you’re able to get over that rock or avoid the cat. And then you go back. So, this is really about retraining your brain in, maybe a more beneficial way to use your visual system when you’re out in the environment and it will have tremendously powerful effects on posture over time.
Give this a try. See how it works for you.