By Tania Alexander
HUMAN legs are a remarkable piece of human engineering. From waist to toes, there is a network of more than 60 different bones. In a lifetime, the average person walks 150,000 kilometres, 9,000 steps a day and almost four times around the world. TANIA ALEXANDER explains how to keep your legs in peak condition.
OBESITY is linked with osteoarthritis (loss of cartilage in the joints), which commonly affects knees and hips. Carrying too much weight can also lead to varicose veins - dilated superficial veins which range from hardly noticeable to large bunches of grape-like structures behind the knee. About one in three women suffer from varicose veins.
Varicose veins are not life-threatening but they look unsightly and can also be painful. Being overweight can make the condition worse, as can pregnancy, when the hormonal influence of progesterone relaxes the veins. Varicose veins in pregnancy usually improve after the baby is born.
'The most important thing is to have your varicose veins assessed properly, usually with an ultrasound scan,' advises John Scurr, a consultant vascular surgeon from Middlesex Hospital.
You can then be advised on which treatment is most suitable - wearing elastic stockings, surgery, injection treatment or laser treatment.
For further information on varicose veins and other leg vascular problems, see www.jscurr.com EXERCISE is very important for the health of your legs, according to Dr Scurr. 'It doesn't really matter what you do, just get moving.'
Walking is an excellent way to tone the muscles in the leg, reduce body fat and improve circulation.
We may have started walking when we were still in nappies, but according to Alexander Technique teacher Malcolm Balk, most people don't do it properly.
'People walk the same way they sit. If you tend to collapse over a computer, the chances are you take the same pattern along for the walk,' he explains.
'A common habit is walking into the ground rather than over the ground. This means you pound rather than flow, which puts strain on your body.'
The ultimate aim, according to Mr Balk, is to walk tall, smoothly and quietly. Avoid looking down, because this puts your head down and your spine follows, placing pressure on your back and neck.
Keep your head up and look outwards. The head should lead the spine upward, while the knee, not the foot, leads the leg forward.
'If you lead with the foot, your body will tilt backwards rather than encouraging it to lengthen upwards off the legs,' says Mr Balk. 'Try to transfer your weight smoothly from one leg to the next, rather than muscling the body along with excessive effort.' STANDING up, or even sitting down, all day can lead to swollen legs and ankles.
Being inactive causes circulation problems. Normally when you walk, the blood is pumped back towards your heart and swelling is reduced. Putting your feet up for just ten minutes a day can help - lie down on the sofa and make sure your feet are raised higher than your heart. Or raise the end
of your bed by six inches for extra drainage while sleeping.
'Support stockings can also help,' advises Dr Scurr.
Swollen legs can be caused by lymphodema. In addition to arteries which supply the leg with blood and veins that take the blood from the leg, a lymphatic system clears materials which escape from the circulation.
If your lymphatic system is poorly developed or becomes blocked, you are at risk of developing swelling. In most cases lymphodema is treated with elastic compression stockings or an intermittent pneumatic compression pump. Surgery is available in extreme cases.
If you get swollen legs, particularly if it's just on one side, or you have pain or redness, it's important to seek medical advice for a proper diagnosis. JAMIE BAIRD, fitness trainer at the Agua gym in the Sanderson Hotel in London, says: 'Even people who exercise regularly, don't stretch enough. Tight leg muscles can put the whole body out of balance and lead to injury.'
Focus on areas such as the hip flexors (tight from sitting for long periods), calf muscles and Achilles tendon (shortened from wearing high heels) and the iliotibial (IT) band (an area that runs down the outside of the leg from the hip to the knee, commonly tight and painful in runners).
'Try to stretch your legs every day after a warm bath or shower,' advises Mr Baird. 'It's also a good idea to do a specific stretch or yoga class each week to give you a solid hour or more of stretching.'
Sarah Key, physiotherapist to Prince Charles and the Royal Family, recommends the following stretch to improve circulation and reduce puffy ankles.
¿¿ STAND facing up the stairs, holding the bannister and using your forefoot and toes to hang on.
¿¿DROP the back of your feet off a tread, letting your heels dip down towards the step below. You should feel a 'very meaningful' stretch in the back of the calves and Achilles tendon.
'You can even bounce there minutely, attempting to get your heels closer to the tread below,' says Ms Key. 'The discomfort can be marked and you will be able to remain there only for 15-20 seconds at the most.
'This sustained stretch pulls on the veins threading around the inside ankle which, over time, makes the vein walls more elastic.
'Thereafter they expand better, and by allowing a better shunt of blood back up to the heart, you do not get the stasis of circulation which causes the puffiness.
'Stretching the veins keeps the walls young and stops the development of varicose weakenings.' HIGH heels make your legs look longer, but if the heels are more than two inches high, they can throw your body out of alignment.
'Wearing high heels increases your lordotic curve or swayback, which can lead to back pain,' says osteopath Garry Trainer. 'If you wear high heels, try to counteract-this by stretching out your Achilles tendon.
'When sitting at the dinner table, slip off your shoes and extend your heel out so that your foot is flexed, toes pointing towards you.' THE leg is the most common area of the body in which women get malignant melanomas (the deadlier skin cancer). Be vigilant and check regularly for any changes in colour, size or shape of moles.
'The riskiest area for men is their backs, which suggests a link to sun exposure, as both these areas are commonly exposed in the sunshine, with women wearing skirts and men taking their shirts off,' says Jane Melia from the Institute of Cancer Research.
'Skin cancer can occur anywhere, so it's important to check your skin regularly and ask your GP if you have any concerns.' COMMONLY used by physiotherapists for ankle rehabilitation, a wobble board is an excellent way to exercise your ankles and legs, according to Garry Trainer. A wobble board will also help to improve balance, co-ordination and blood circulation. Wobble boards are available from Back 2 £46.25 (0800 5879000). PASSENGERS who fly longhaul are at risk of developing clots in the legs and deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
Dr Scurr recommends that anyone going on a flight of more than eight hours should use an elastic compression stocking, such as Mediven travel stockings (£19.82 including postage and package, 0800 085 3630).
Dr Scurr also recommends doing some exercise before you get on the plane, and avoiding alcohol.
'If you can take aspirin, then half an adult aspirin tablet does help to reduce the risk of blood clots,' he says.
When on the aircraft, move your feet up and down regularly, and ideally walk regularly around the plane. You can also use an in-flight exercise device such as the Air Walker (£11.74, including package and posting, 01582 745700 or www.huntleigh-healthcare.com), which simulates the action of walking while you're in your seat. SHOWERING your legs each day with cold water can improve circulation and tone. Athletes often submerge their limbs in icy water after a heavy training session to reduce swelling and ease soreness. SOMETIMES described as your 'second heart', your leg veins help pump blood back up to the heart.
Nutritionally, the same rules apply for healthy leg vein circulation as for a healthy heart.
Cut back on saturated fats found in red meat and dairy products. Go for monosaturated fats (such as olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (found in oily fish, cooking oils and some nuts and beans).
There are also natural food supplements which claim to improve leg vein circulation, such as Antistax Leg Vein Health Capsules. These contain red vine leaf extract to help maintain strong leg vein and capillary walls. (£3.99 for 20 tablets from Boots.)