Does texting while walking really affect gait in young adults?

V. Agostini, F. Lo Fermo, G. Massazza and M. Knaflitz
Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation

Background: Texting on a smartphone while walking has become a customary task among young adults. In recent literature many safety concerns on distracted walking have been raised. It is often hypothesized that the allocation of attentional resources toward a secondary task can influence dynamic stability. In the double task of walking and texting it was found that gait speed is reduced, but there is scarce evidence of a modified motor control strategy compromising stability. The aim of this study is twofold: 1) to comprehensively examine the gait modifications occurring when texting while walking, including the study of the lower limb muscle activation patterns, 2) to specifically assess the co-contraction of ankle antagonist muscles. We hypothesized that texting while walking increases co-contractions of ankle antagonist muscles when the body weight is transferred from one lower limb to the other, to improve the distal motor control and joint stabilization.

Methods: From the gait data collected during an instrumented walk lasting 3 min, we calculated the spatio-temporal parameters, the ankle and knee kinematics, the muscle activation patterns of tibialis anterior, gastrocnemius lateralis, peroneus longus, rectus femoris, and lateral hamstrings, and the co-contraction (occurrence and duration) of the ankle antagonist muscles (tibialis anterior and gastrocnemius lateralis), bilaterally.

Results: Young adults showed, overall, small gait modifications that could be mainly ascribable to gait speed reduction and a modified body posture due to phone handling. We found no significant alterations of ankle and knee kinematics and a slightly delayed activation onset of the left gastrocnemius lateralis. However, we found an increased co-contraction of tibialis anterior and gastrocnemius lateralis, especially during mid-stance. Conversely, we found a reduced co-contraction during terminal stance.

Conclusions: Our results suggest that, in young adults, there is an adjustment of the motor control strategy aimed at increasing ankle joint stability in a specific and “critical” phase of the gait cycle, when the body weight is transferred from one leg to the other.

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