How poor sleep impacts walking

Sleep walking: poor sleep might be making you more injury-prone when you walk

Posted by for Wellbeing

Struggling to get a good night’s sleep? You might start to feel it in your feet. A new study suggests that kip can have a profound impact on the way we walk.

Sleep affects just about every part of life, from our ability to recover well from workouts to our mood and appetite. It also plays a huge role in how injury-prone we are. But it’s not just those explosive workouts we need to be wary of doing after a poor night’s kip – apparently, poor sleep also impacts the way we walk.

We already know that sleep and injury-risk go hand in hand. Athletes who sleep for at least eight hours a night decrease their risk of injury by up to 60%, according to 2019 research published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

But a new study has found that a lack of sleep affects gait control when we walk. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that we tend to drag our feet when we’ve had less kip than usual, and that even just a few less hours of sleep on the weekend is enough to detrimentally affect our walking abilities.

A bunch of students were asked to walk on a treadmill and the researchers found that the less sleep they got, the less control they had while walking; for those who pulled an all-nighter beforehand, their gait control fell through the floor. 

Interestingly, those students who generally didn’t get much sleep during the week but who tended to sleep in on the weekends to make up for it performed better than those who never ‘caught up’ on sleep.

Poor sleep = poor walking

Each student was given a smart watch that tracked their activity over a 14-day period. The data gave researchers an idea of how long and how well each participant slept. On average, each student slept for about six hours, with some catching up on sleep over the two weekends during the period.

On the evening before the last day, one group of students was kept awake all night and the other group was allowed to sleep. The treadmill test involved walking to the beat of a metronome, which was subtly sped up and slowed down at random.

A weekend lie-in can make all the difference

Those who were sleep-deprived were less able to stick with the rhythm and generally performed worse than those who slept well. That might sound obvious but the real finding of the study was how much better those students slept in a couple of times a week did – despite not getting much kip for the rest of the week.

That important finding led Hermano Krebs, principal research scientist at MIT to conclude: “We find that compensating for sleep could be an important strategy (for protecting walking gait). For instance, for those who are chronically sleep-deprived, like shift workers, clinicians, and some military personnel, if they build in regular sleep compensation, they might have better control over their gait.”

Walking is more complicated than you might think

Most of the time, we don’t even think about how we walk – it’s an automatic activity that we do to move around. But anyone who has hiked or come back from injury knows that there is a little more to walking than most of us think. This study suggests too that the way in which we place our feet is important; gait isn’t just something that runners need to be aware of but an important element to walking well.

If we drag our feet while running, we run the risk of rolled ankles, knee pain and tripping over. Walking isn’t that different. If you’re not able to lift your feet, the chances of you slipping, tripping or doing bridge damage increases. Your overall mobility declines. 

The conclusion of this study? Prioritise getting a good night’s sleep every night, even if you’re not training the next day. Good sleep benefits every part of our lives, including the every day mundane activities like walking to the shop. And if you do have to stay up late, that weekend lie-in as more medicinal than you might think.

For more workout tips, healthy recipes and exercise guides, check out the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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