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6 Movement Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making

How to make sure you are standing, lifting and walking without causing injuries

spinner image man lifting boxes and moving into new house suffers backache
tommaso79 / Getty Images

Humans were made to move (otherwise, we’d be statues), so we often walk, squat, bend and perform other movements on autopilot, doing what comes naturally to us. But over the years, bad movement habits can sneak into the picture, often without our being aware of them. “What happens is the body naturally changes with aging — strength and flexibility decrease — and the person can’t compensate for the changes,” says Robert Gillanders, a physical therapist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

As a result, you might adopt ways of moving that let you work around a decline in strength or flexibility or that allow you to avoid discomfort that might occur with proper movement form. The trouble is, these movement mistakes can lead to pain and injuries. Here’s a close look at specific movement mistakes people often make as they get older, with advice on how to correct them.

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1. Mistake: Bending from the waist or rounding your lower back to pick up something from the floor.

This may feel like the easy way to reach a low point. But the problem is, “patterns of movement where the spine isn’t in its natural alignment can cause strain to structures like the intervertebral discs,” Gillanders says. This can also strain muscles and ligaments, any or all of which can lead to back pain.

How to correct it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and “do a hip hinge like a bow in karate, then continuously bend from the hips and knees,” advises Jake Steffes, a physical therapist with Northwestern Medicine in the Chicago area. By bending from the hips and knees, you can tighten your core muscles to protect your back and use your legs to lift something from the floor, load or unload the dishwasher, or get laundry out of the dryer.

2. Mistake: Initiating a squat movement from the knees, rather than the hips.

At first blush, this may seem to contradict the advice just given. But when you begin a squat movement by bending your knees, this places a lot of load and strain on the knees, warns Sherri Betz, a physical therapist in private practice in Monroe, Louisiana and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Besides causing knee pain, this habit can also lead to back pain.

How to correct it: Hinge from the hips before you bend your knees, Gillanders advises. Then, push your bottom back, as if you were going to sit on a chair. That’s the right way to squat whether you’re moving a box, sitting in a chair or on the couch, or getting into or out of a car.

Keep in mind: When you’re getting up from a chair, you don’t want to lean forward, Betz says. Instead, scoot your butt forward on the seat, place your feet hip-width apart, then hinge from the hips — so your nose is over your toes — as you stand up.

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3. Mistake: Letting your knees collapse inward when you bend them.

This is often related to loss of leg strength — people “press their legs together to gain stability,” Betz explains. Unfortunately, she says, engaging in this habit can lead to a series of negative consequences, such as overstretching the ligaments inside the knee, compromising the arches of the feet, and decreasing strength in the outer hip muscles.

How to correct it: “Be mindful of having your knees track over your feet or keeping your knees apart when you bend them,” Gillanders advises. If you have trouble doing this on your own, doing exercises on a mat — such as bridges on your back or clamshell exercises on your side — can strengthen the muscles in the glutes and thighs.  

4. Mistake: Walking flat-footed rather than rolling through your feet.

Sometimes people start walking in a flat-footed fashion if they have peripheral neuropathy, conditions that involve damage to the nervous system, or they lack confidence about walking steadily, Betz says. Not only can this affect the pattern and pace of your gait, but walking flat-footed also can lead to strain in the back, hips and knees, as well as shin splints. “It’s a form of low-level stress with high exposure because we take thousands of steps per day,” Gillanders notes.

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How to correct it: “Visualize the movement and break it down into component pieces,” Gillanders advises. Make a concerted effort to walk slowly: Strike the ground with the heel of one foot, roll through the foot and push off from the front of that foot; as you strike the ground with the other heel, roll through that foot, and so on. If you find this difficult to do and you suspect there may have been a biomechanical change to your foot, Steffes suggests seeing a podiatrist to find out if you’d benefit from orthotics.

5. Mistake: Locking your knees when you’re standing still.

You might do this without thinking about it, but it puts a great deal of stress into the back of the knees and into the low back, Steffes warns. A similar mistake people often make is to shift their weight onto one leg when they’re standing in line, for example, instead of keeping it balanced between their legs. This also adds unnecessary stress to the weight-bearing knee and other bones in that leg, Gillanders adds.

How to correct it: The first step is to notice when you tend to do it. Maybe it’s while you’re standing in a long line or talking to someone while standing. In these situations, stand with your feet hip-width apart and keep a soft bend in your knees so they’re not clenched, Steffes says. If you’re standing for a while, it can also help to do heel raises with both feet, Betz says.​​

6. Mistake: Looking at the ground while you walk.

spinner image perspective of a man looking down at his feet while walking
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Sometimes people do this when their balance is compromised and they’re afraid of falling, Betz says. But doing this throws your posture out of its proper alignment, which can lead to back and neck strain. Believe it or not, looking down while walking also can increase your risk of falling by bringing your center of gravity forward, Steffes notes. Plus, he adds, when you look at the ground, you are seeing things that are momentarily in front of you, which prevents you from avoiding obstacles that may come up ahead.  

How to correct it: Try to maintain good posture — with your head over your shoulders, your shoulders over your hips, and so on — while you walk. Keep your eyes on the horizon, looking 10 to 20 feet in front of you as you walk, Betz says. And “don’t walk with bifocals on,” she adds, because they present a fall risk. ​

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