Walking or running: the body adapts without thinking

Hiking in the middle of nature, walking to work, or running, our body is constantly adapting to try to consume as little energy as possible… Without needing to think about it. Explanations!

You have probably already noticed in the street, we are not all moving at the same pace. Some always seem to be in a hurry while others may, on the contrary, seem very slow. Anyway, it seems that our organism is constantly adapting to the constraints we put on it, adopting a pace of steps so that we consume as little energy as possible. But by what mechanisms does he manage this rhythm? Researchers at Queen’s University in Canada have looked into the issue. They reveal their findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Walking efficiently requires almost no thought

“People are constantly detecting their energy expenditure and adapting their gait to minimize costs,” says Jessica Selinger, one of the study’s authors, adding: “We adapt all kinds of walking characteristics: the speed at which we move, the length and width of each step, to minimize the calories we burn.” Together with the other researchers, they discovered that this adaptation was done automatically, without us being aware of it.

Distractions do not disturb the rhythm of walking

To reach this conclusion, the scientists passed a battery of tests to the volunteers. “The experimental facility was technical and had many elements,” says one of the researchers. The team began by asking the volunteers to walk on a treadmill at a comfortable speed while listening to a stream of beeps in headphones, having to press a button in the right hand when the beep was higher than the previous tone, or in the left when the beep was lower.

By trying to distract them as much as possible through this series of beeps, the researchers were able to analyze whether or not people consciously adjusted their movements to conserve energy while they walked. Results: humans do not have to think to walk effectively, they adapt automatically.

Walking, an automatic mechanism

The team also wanted to know if participants used more energy when they had to think to find the most efficient way to walk with a leg splint. By analyzing the volunteers’ responses, they realized that this process was also automatic. “When people use energetically optimal walking modes, they do so without the need to think about it consciously,” adds Jessica Selinger.

It is this ability to adapt our movements without thinking, which allows us to focus on other tasks while we walk, and to avoid obstacles on the road for example.

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