Is natural variability in gait sufficient to initiate spontaneous energy optimization in human walking?

Journal of Neurophysiology
Jeremy D WongJ Maxwell Donelan


In new walking contexts, the nervous system can adapt preferred gaits to minimize energetic cost. During treadmill walking, this optimization is not usually spontaneous but instead requires experience with the new energetic cost landscape. Experimenters can provide subjects with the needed experience by prescribing new gaits or instructing them to explore new gaits. Yet in familiar walking contexts, people naturally prefer energetically optimal gaits: the nervous system can optimize cost without an experimenter's guidance. Here we test the hypothesis that the natural gait variability of overground walking provides the nervous system with sufficient experience with new cost landscapes to initiate spontaneous minimization of energetic cost. We had subjects walk over paths of varying terrain while wearing knee exoskeletons that penalized walking as a function of step frequency. The exoskeletons created cost landscapes with minima that were, on average, 8% lower than the energetic cost at the initially preferred gaits and achieved at walking speeds and step frequencies that were 4% lower than the initially preferred values. We found that our overground walking trials amplified gait variability by 3.7-fold compared with treadmill wa...Continue Reading


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