Some people count a unique nose or receding hairline among their biggest insecurities. But not me.
From as far back as I can remember, I was always embarrassed about how I walk. Schoolmates and even adults poked fun at my penguin-like waddle, with one teacher quipping to the class that it was so distinctive she could instantly spot me in a crowd.
I’ve also been compared to Phoebe Buffay (specifically her awkward flailing run) on more than one occasion, which led me to regularly ‘forget’ my PE kit to avoid attention.
You see, I have duck feet – or to put it in more technical terms, I’m out-toed. The exact number of people who suffer from the same thing isn’t known but it’s very common in children, though most grow out of it by age six.
Because out-toeing isn’t a health concern in itself, adults with the condition may just assume it’s their natural gait and doesn’t require correction. However, as I found out, it can lead to bigger issues further down the line.
I sought the help of Luis Ribeiro, the founder and clinical director of private rehabilitation and performance clinic, Club Health, to find out if I could transform my walk from ugly duckling to graceful swan.
Initially it was a primarily cosmetic endeavour, motivated by the (admittedly vain) desire not to embarrass myself by stomping down the aisle as a bridesmaid at an upcoming wedding, as well as sheer curiosity over whether it was actually possible to ‘fix’ me.
Yet Luis explained that out-toeing can result in serious problems such as lower back and hip pain, joint injuries, sciatica, flat feet and plantar fasciitis. This is down to the way some muscles go unused while others are strained, putting pressure on the knees and ankles in particular.
In one of Club Health’s swanky Notting Hill treatment rooms, the physiotherapist assessed my posture over Fiji water and soothing spa music. Luis instantly noticed that my arches were pronated, one shoulder dropped lower than the other (likely exacerbated by carrying heavy bags on the right. He observed that my hips rotated in inwards and my shins outwards – which I’ve since learned is described as ‘miserable misalignment’ – so I could benefit from an adjustment.
Then, things got real.
I must preface this by saying Luis looks like a sort of Shoreditch lumberjack, immaculately presented in denim and plaid with a well-groomed beard that I refuse to believe hasn’t been professionally straightened. Despite being completely non-judgemental and friendly, he’s an intimidating presence. I, on the other hand, was flustered from the mid-heatwave walk to the clinic and wearing cat socks and gym gear I’d dug out of the bottom of my wardrobe. So I was slightly self-conscious when he propped me onto the treatment bed and began twisting my limbs in all sorts of directions.
Luis got to work on my thighs area first, contorting me into positions that made my body crack and crunch like never before. It didn’t hurt, feeling more like a sharp release from years of built-up tension.
‘It’s going to seem like I’m about to roll you off the bed here,’ he pronounced at one point but, sensing my panic, reassured me: ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you.’ To paraphrase Midsommar, I felt held.
Once I’d got over the embarrassment of Luis and our cameraman having to bear witness to my bum in yoga pants, the rest of the realignment was blissful. I walked out feeling like a new woman, but I wasn’t done yet.
Although Luis had clicked my joints back into place, permanent de-ducking would require long-term effort. In the gym, lead rehabilitation specialist Joel Hanington used a series of tests to demonstrate how my muscles had weakened due to a lifetime of poor positioning.
Joel asked me to stand up straight and imagine I had a pea under my big toe which I couldn’t squash or let roll away. I was then tasked with engaging my core and maintaining the right form in exercises like lunges and squats, sometimes with resistance bands between my knees or ankles.
Many of the movements were deceptively difficult to do properly, especially since I’m about as far from a fitness fanatic as it’s possible to get. Thanks to a few hyper-competitive sports boys who pelted dodgeballs in my face at school, I’m guilty of a bit of prejudice towards men who might be considered ‘gym bros’. Yet I needn’t have worried, as Joel and his fellow trainer were insightful, professional and hugely patient.
They showed me how to continue the exercises at home and advised me to practice the pea trick whenever I remembered. So in the months since then, I’ve been tensing and twisting on the Tube, while brushing my teeth, and whenever I’m stuck in a slow-moving queue.
After the session I felt lighter, like I was sauntering rather than plodding down the street. I couldn’t believe the difference in my gait over a couple of hours, and a few people even commented on my newly-fixed feet (now pointed at 10 and two rather than three and nine).
The change was dramatic, but I’ve had to be careful of letting bad habits slip back in. When I’m in a crowd, for example, I tend to steady myself by making a sort of out-toed triangle. I also sleep on my front, cross my legs constantly, and sit with my ankles tucked underneath myself, none of which are recommended for healthy joints.
In the same way people have to wear a retainer after having their braces removed, I have to remain conscious of my walk and posture if I want the change to last. Every time I notice myself going from human to hen, I correct my stance and pick up where I left off.
It’s an ongoing process – one that I may be working on for years to come. I can safely say now, however, that if it walks like a duck, it definitely doesn’t need to for the rest of its life.
Have your gait assessed at Club Health:
Club Health has clinics in Notting Hill and Chelsea, with a one-hour initial consultation and treatment (where they ‘evaluate and treat the body as a whole to address every imbalance, weakness or injury’) costing £240.
After this, care plans are bespoke to each client, and could include which could include treatments like clinical pilates, rehabilitation and conditioning, strength training, manual therapy or laser therapy.
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