Walking Really Is Just Falling and Catching Yourself

By Elizabeth Preston | September 26, 2014 9:30 am


The flailing of a gymnast who’s missed a step on the balance beam might not be far off from what the rest of us experience every day. Each step we take is really a tiny fall, a mathematical model suggests. The random-looking variation in our footfalls is actually a series of corrections. Our strides are all screw-ups—but thanks to the fixes that happen without us knowing, our walking routines look like a perfect ten.

Manoj Srinivasan, who runs the Movement Lab at Ohio State University, and Yang Wang, a doctoral student at the time, studied walking down to the millimeter. They put motion-capture markers on people’s feet and pelvises, as if preparing their legs to star in Avatar 3. Then the 10 subjects walked on treadmills at various speeds, while cameras captured every motion.

The data showed that no one was a perfect walker. “Every step is slightly different from every other step,” Wang says. Rather than placing their feet in the same spots on the treadmill with each stride, subjects constantly deviated to the left or right, front or back.

Wang and Srinivasan set out to create a model that would explain this variation. Is it as random as it looks, or are people’s footfalls predictable?

“We were trying to find a mathematical relation between the next foot position and the current pelvis state,” Wang says. Tiny leftward or rightward shifts in the pelvis represent the shifting of that whole heavy torso we have to balance on top of our legs. When the researchers compared these pelvis movement to variations in footfalls, what they found wasn’t random at all. More than 80% of the side-to-side variation in foot placement could be predicted by movements in the pelvis beforehand.

When the top half of the body starts to tip left, we set our next step a little bit farther left to push ourselves back. When we wobble right, we step wider in that direction. With each stride, we start to fall, and “we are constantly making little corrections to be stable,” Wang says.

The researchers even found that tracking the pelvis predicted where a person’s feet would fall better than tracking their actual feet. Halfway through each stride, they write, “the pelvis ‘knows’ much more about the future foot position than the foot itself.” They ruled out other possible influences too, like where a person was on the treadmill belt. The single best explanation for a person’s pattern of footfalls was self-correction.

Understanding how humans walk could help engineers develop better human exoskeletons and walking robots, Wang and Srinivasan say. And knowing how we keep ourselves stable might someday help us prevent falls in people who are vulnerable to them, such as the elderly or those with movement disorders.

There’s always self-doubt to trip us up, though. Now that they know they’re falling all the time, do the researchers doubt their own bipedal abilities? “Honestly, not so much,” Srinivasan says. “These series of errors and recoveries are pretty sub-conscious for a healthy adult.”

However, he speculates that to stay safe, maybe “you can’t think about it too much.”

Image: Richard Leeming (via Flickr)

Wang, Y., & Srinivasan, M. (2014). Stepping in the direction of the fall: the next foot placement can be predicted from current upper body state in steady-state walking Biology Letters, 10 (9), 20140405-20140405 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.0405

CATEGORIZED UNDER: math, physics, screwups, top posts, walking
  • Steven Otte

    Performance artist Laurie Anderson studied the same phenomenon more than 30 years ago. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02BIaMBfUc8

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    One then requires a single bipedal perambulator with each leg controlled by a separate mind. We can study that,


    0:20 – 0:56

  • randolphgarrison1

    Walking is just using gravity for controlled falling to produce desired movement.

  • Carol Robbins

    Of course they are falling – they were measured on a treadmill where the ground moves backwards beneath your feet, reversing the gait pattern requiring you to flex the hip and bring the leg in front, lean forward and land on it. A natural gait pattern has the foot on the ground pushing against the ground to move the body forward, ie,; hip extension. Unfortunately most people in our sedentary, chair sitting, positive heel wearing, adaptively shortened hip flexor culture have a reversed gait pattern on solid or moving ground. In order to measure a population which still has a reflex driven gait pattern you’d have to find a hunter-gatherer tribe who moves all day and doesn’t wear shoes. Or read Move Your DNA for more information on this.

    • Thoth

      Nice cut and paste or reiteration of something you gleaned from the web.

  • quadrill

    I been out walk-in , after midnite z,,,,,

  • ECarpenter

    My high school biology teacher described walking as ‘controlled falling’ and discussed a lot of this stuff with us – in 1967. It’s not a new discovery, the researchers are refining what’s been known for a long time – an admirable job, but it should be put into the context of what’s come before.

  • Dan Alvírez

    Laurie Anderson told us this back in the 80s

  • Luca Salce

    A dog would help reading hip’s subtle movements more than humans or machines. Let’s get a dog scientist, quick!



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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