4 Ways Walking Can Be a Literal Pain In the Neck (and Shoulders)

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Listen, a long walk can be one of the best ways to unwind—I don't know what I would do without my daily stroll. Sometimes, though, neck and shoulder pain can kill the vibe. Even though it may seem like walking causes neck pain, improper form is the real culprit. So if you groan like an actor in a pain-relief commercial after every walk, here are some reasons you might have a stiff neck and shoulders.

1. You're looking down at your phone or feet

We hate to break it to you, but keeping your head upright is the ideal walking form, and when you're texting or scrolling, it can negatively impact your muscles. Tilting the head forward increases the amount of weight that is put on your spine and is a culprit behind general "tech neck" (and walking while scrolling is no exception), says Jessica McManus, PT, FAAOMPT, physical therapist, functional medicine health coach, owner of Full Circle Wellness PT. If you're looking down to avoid ice or uneven terrain, that's understandable, McManus says, but a walking stick or mobility aid could also help give you keep your head up.

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2. Rounded, forward shoulders

Another reason you might have neck or shoulder pain while walking, according to McManus, is because your shoulders are slouched and rounded forward. This could be because of your desk set up at work or because you have large breasts that shift your center of gravity forward. This is not an ideal posture and can cause a strain on the back, neck, and shoulders over time because these muscles overcompensate for this forward shift.

To ensure you're using the correct posture, stand straight with your shoulders back and your head forward. McManus recommends imagining a dangly earring hanging from your ear. Proper posture would mean that this earring dangles right above the center of the top of your shoulder ( above your collarbone). If that imaginary earring dangles in front of your shoulder, you might experience some back strain over time.

3. Chronic stiffness from a limited range of motion

Even though walking is admittedly lower intensity than running or boxing, it's still an exercise, and stiffness might be caused by incorrect body movement. McManus explains that appropriate walking form means that you're engaging in good posture and that your arms are allowed to swing at your sides. This is important because it allows your mid-spine (thoracic spine) to twist slightly as you walk. If you're finding aches and pains post-walk, examine whether or not you have a full range of motion while you stroll.

4. Shallow breathing

Proper, deeper breathing involves using the diaphragm, which is a muscle below the lungs that supports your breath, says McManus. When people take repeated shallow breaths, they utilize muscles in the upper chest that aren't as strong as the diaphragm, she adds. These include the squalene muscles on the sides of the upper chest. "These muscles reach from the ribs to the neck, and they're not meant to be constantly engaged around the clock," says McManus.

McManus recommends you breathe while looking in the mirror to practice better form. If your shoulders rise while you inhale, that's a sign that you're engaging these upper muscles. Instead, breathe deeply into your body as if your breath was going to reach your feet.

Going for a short stroll has so many health benefits, but it's so frustrating when walking causes neck and shoulders pain. It's fantastic that you enjoy it and want to reduce the amount of pain you experience. The emphasis on proper form means you can do more of what you enjoy pain-free, and just like any other aspect of fitness: It might take a little practice to get it right.

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