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One Step, A Thousand Operations
Nov 1, 2013

How good are we aware of the operations of systems and mechanisms that make us walk?

Costly research and development efforts are under way in centers throughout the world seeking to build walking robots by mimicking human mobility. After 14 years of research, automotive firms built Asimo, a robot which can walk bipedally and climb stairs like humans. Even though the moves Asimo could make matched those of a one year old baby, it was still considered a great success for the robot technology.

Hardships encountered during these research projects proved walking to be a great miracle, apart from normal habits of movement. We often become aware of how extraordinary movement is and that the moves we repeat hundreds of times, such as walking, running, bending, sitting and standing, are blessings granted to us only when we see someone who has lost some of their mobility.

That humans can walk bi-pedally is truly exceptional. Most organisms have a front leaning skeletal structure and walk on four extremities; they only stand upright when absolutely required to, since it is very difficult for them. Human ability to stand upright and walk on two legs truly signifies them as special amongst creatures, and sets them apart from all of creation. The lively, regal posture of dexterous bipedal humans constitutes very important evidence showing they are "the most superior of all creatures."

The multifunctional, flexible nature of our skeletal system enables us to complete very simple moves automatically. Walking seems to be a very easy task, however, it occurs as a calculated outcome of many factors, such as determination of stepping distance, the toning of corresponding muscles of the same and opposite direction, relaxation and contraction levels, and relocation of the body's gravity center.

Walking takes place via the coordinated works of the locomotor (musculoskeletal) system, motor control system, and balance-coordination system.

Locomotor (musculoskeletal) system

The framework of the human body is built together with 206 bones of variable hardness. With their strong nature and capacity to endure extra weights, bones takes up 20% of a body's mass, and are the major load bearing part of the body's structure.

The main part of our skeleton is the vertebral column. It consists of 33 small bones, known as vertebrae, positioned on top of each other. Wear-preventing discs are found in between vertebrae to protect against motion related wearing over time. As the vertebral column holds the weight of the upper body, it is created in a way to keep the body upright. The spinal cord inside the channel that is surrounded by the vertebral column is a very important signaling network providing coordination between the brain and other organs.

Joints and ligaments are among the moving parts of our body. The most important joints for walking are the hips, knees, and ankles. The curvy shape of the foot and its contact to the ground at three spots supports bones against body weight and helps with balance. This is why flat footed people struggle with walking and get tired easily. The curves of our spine at the neck, back and waist regions, and the hips, knee joints, and curvature of the foot, are perfectly shaped for standing upright and walking.

In order to move we need a muscle system along with the skeletal system. Muscles are made up of thousands of contractible muscle fibers. There are more than 6 billion muscle fiber motors in the human body. We walk, run, eat, breathe, talk and do many more moves by using ability granted to muscles. Approximately 35 muscles in each leg, and around 100 muscles in the whole body, function during walking.

Ligaments and tendons are links that secure bones and muscles together; they also help to stabilize joints, thus when standing, joints remain in place without muscles contracting.

Four different mechanisms are involved in walking:

  1. Proper upright posture and maintenance of balance during walking
  2. Forward motion of body via muscle power
  3. Reduction of shock-impact effect while stepping
  4. Maintenance of motion with the least amount of energy.

A series of movements is generated in the legs to provide a forward motion and these are constantly repeated. These constant repetitions are called the "walk cycle." The "passing pose" is defined as the time frame when the leg is in the air, and the contact pose is the phase during ground contact. In the middle of the contact pose, even though body is in balance, because of the forward momentum of the body, balance is lost, thus the body leans forward. Balance is then restored by stepping on the ground with the leg in the air. As a result of this rhythmic loss and restoration of balance, the body moves forward.

In a person standing upright, the center of gravity is in front of the fifth vertebra. At the start of a walk, the body leans forward to carry the center of gravity towards the front; then the initiation of the motion via forward transfer of the power with toes and joints takes place, followed by the lifting of the heels, the bending of the knees, and the lifting of the foot, thus displacing the center of gravity of the forward leaning body towards the front.

Balance should be maintained when one leg is lifted in order to let the other leg carry the load of the body's weight. The gravitational center of the body is located in the distance between the two legs since each leg is located on the side. Body balance is maintained by the contractions of dorsal muscles located across the side of the stepping foot, working in parallel to support and transfer body weight to the foot via the hip and femoral muscles. These events happen so quickly that we often do not even notice all the complicated processes.

The great Sufi figure Abdul-Qadir Gilani was often asked questions such as, "Master, show us a miracle." He would stand up to walk three to five steps and sit back down. Everybody was confused, looking at each other. One person among them was heard saying, "Master, excuse us but we can all do that as well." Gilani replied then, "Is there a greater miracle than walking? You see it, but do not understand."

Motor control of walking

Bodily motions are controlled via the primary motor centers that are located on the side and cortex region of the brain. These centers are created in a way to prepare and organize motor programs involving body movements, and to integrate them with the proprioceptive memory. This synthesis of information enables the adaptation of motor commands to the present posture of the legs and arms regarding intended moves.

A desire to make a move is a necessary prerequisite for the stimulation of muscles pertaining to it. If we want to hold something, we can easily do it; when we want to raise our arm, our elbows bend; to run or walk, our leg muscles start to move and work. How do all of those moves happen? Is our desire enough to do so? Can the guidance of all the bones and muscles, working together towards the same target, happen by itself or occur via coincidences?

In order for muscles to move, our thoughts must be relayed to them and this is provided by the nervous system and nerve network. There is an amazing communication network present in our body. In case of an intended move, an electric signal is sent by the brain. During this journey, which seems to be complicated, the signal arrives at the spinal cord and then quickly diverts to the corresponding organ. Millions of motors that make up the muscle are stimulated by the electric signal, contracting the fibers instantly upon reception of the signal. In order to do a coordinated move, it is necessary to know the related body organs' positions and their relations to each other. Millions of transmitters that provide this information have been placed throughout the body. This data come from the eyes, the inner ear's balance and sensory organs, muscles, joints, and skin. There are billions of micro receptors located in muscles and joints programmed to send instantaneous positions of the body to the central nervous system. In every stage of a move, the positions of the muscles are reported instantly to the command center by these micro receptors inside the muscles. New commands are given to the muscles based on the assessments made here. This way, each second, billions of bits of information can be processed and assessed.

The cerebellum is another center that is in charge of functions such as maintenance of balance during walking and standing, carrying out proper and coordinated moves with visual control, providing coordination among muscle groups, promptly starting and stopping movements, and the maintenance and organization of normal muscle toning. The cerebellum is tasked primarily with hastened muscle activities like running, typing, and talking. Thus, fast moves necessary for the balance system are sustained properly and successively without abnormal oscillations.

Specific motion templates have been programmed in the spinal cord for all muscle-covered regions of the body. Rhythmic movements, such as forward and backward motion of the legs and arms, and coordinated activities of other body parts in tandem with walking, are controlled here. The task to control repeated moves like walking is assigned to the nerve network consisting of the spinal cord, brainstem and cerebellum.

Balance and coordination system

One of the requirements to walk and move is to stay in balance. Despite our advanced musculoskeletal system, without balance, this system of ours would be useless, or even dangerous.. Our balance system, which is in charge of the instantaneous control and fine adjustments regarding our body, is granted to us as a blessing of Divine compassion.

There are three systems that provide data involving the positions of the head and body: vestibular system (the apparatus of the inner ear), visual senses, proprioceptive senses

The vestibular structures are an essential part of the balance system. They are found in the inner ear, and are small and complicated systems. This 6.5 mm diameter wide system is composed of semicircular channels that contain specific fluid and ciliated sensory cells that cover the inner linings of the channels. This system constantly reports information involving our status in the outer world and instantaneous changes to the balance system.

When we move, the fluid inside the semicircular inner ear channels get displaced; this motion vibrates the cilia. This vibration causes an electric signal to generate in the cells. This electrical signal is then transmitted to the cerebellum; received information gets evaluated instantly in the cerebellum. This system is created to function autonomously without our will and control. When this system is impaired, balance disorders occur, such as dizziness.

Information regarding our position in the environment and the relative status of the environment according to us is sent to the cerebellum and brainstem via our visual senses.

Proprioceptive senses are formed via the activities of tension receptors built in muscle fibers, tendons and joint capsules. These are sensitive to motions and positions. These receptors regularly provide information to the central nervous system. The cerebellum receives information from all the muscles and joints of the body, including the eyes. These inputs are analyzed very promptly at the cerebellum, and the relative gravitational position of the body is finely calculated, thus the proper motions of muscles are determined. The resulting response is relayed towards muscles by nerves. These events take place in a time frame that does not even last for a hundredth of a second. We easily walk, run, and do complicated moves without feeling any of these activities happening inside us. Yet the calculations taking place in our body even for a single moment of those movements can fill thousands of pages.

To understand the fascinating side of our ordinary movements, let's consider a person climbing up the stairs. First, the eyes scan the surroundings, then the three dimensional information of positions acquired from the materials and belongings in the environment are transmitted to the brain. Once received, the information is analyzed and the necessary commands are sent to the target organ from the motor centers of the brain. Commands passing through related tracks and centers finally arrive at the musculoskeletal system. Many factors, like the height of stair steps, length and depth of the foot step, center of gravity and position of the body, are calculated and determined almost instantly.

Proprioceptive signals constantly report the positions of organs, like the arms and legs, to the command center. Inner ear receptors are in charge of the prompt transmission of information necessary for balance, like motion, speed, and direction of the body. These inputs are calculated in milliseconds at corresponding centers in order to maintain the coordination and harmony of the entire body. A person who is running up the stairs may think to jump a couple of stairs. This change of command is rerouted to the locomotor system as a new and different command from the brain. All of these processes are completed in centiseconds. In the mean time, the head, shoulders, and arms are employed for rhythmic oscillations in order to adapt to the overall body momentum.

In conclusion, standing and walking are miraculous and take place via thousands of interrelated activities. Nonetheless, we usually do not notice any of the thousands of processes that are constantly taking place. One hopes that every blessing we have is seen through the window of thanksgiving and appreciation.

Kemal Serce is a professor of veterinary medicine in Bursa, Turkey.