Walking speed can help predict functional health as you age

By Missy Corrigan
Posted 6/13/18

During the last decade, there has been increased interest and research in gait speed as a predictor of vitality and health in older adults. Research suggests that individuals with a slower walking speed have an increased risk of mortality compared …

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Walking speed can help predict functional health as you age

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During the last decade, there has been increased interest and research in gait speed as a predictor of vitality and health in older adults. Research suggests that individuals with a slower walking speed have an increased risk of mortality compared to brisk walkers, who have been linked to better health. There are significant connections between walking speed and health improvements, which should encourage us to pick up the pace as we walk and as we age.

Walking requires energy to move. While moving, muscles kick in to maintain and control balance and posture. As the pace increases, so does the demand on the heart and the lungs. A 2011 study concluded that one's walking pace provides insight to his or her functional status, or ability to perform activities of daily living such as getting dressed, cooking, bathing, driving and shopping. In fact, gait speed is a clinical marker measured in health, disease, fitness and emotional health.

Involuntary reductions in gait speed can reflect physical injury or damage to other systems of the body. With this comes deconditioning and a drop in physical activity directly affecting overall health, especially in older adults. Data links slower walking speeds with frailty, functional dependence, falls, cognitive decline and all-cause mortality.

So what speed is ideal for healthier aging? A speed of 1.8 mph is the average walk pace for individuals ages 65 and older. Speeds less than 1.3 mph indicate poor health and functional status while 2.2 mph indicates healthy aging. Speeds greater than 2.7 mph indicate exceptional life expectancy. If you are unsure of your current gait speed you can test it out on a treadmill.

To add more brisk-paced walking to your fitness routine, engage in interval walking workouts. Start out at your regular pace, for 15-20 seconds pick up the pace to something that is somewhat challenging, and allow yourself to recover at a comfortable pace for twice as long as your brisk pace. So in this case, the recovery part of the walk would be 30-40 seconds. Repeat this at least four or five times throughout your walk.

If you have been walking regularly, incorporate some intervals into your routine. If you are new to a walking program, start for five minutes and add a minute each week. The goal is to walk for a minimum of 30 minutes no less than five days per week. Split up the 30 minutes into three 10-minute walks or two 15-minute walks throughout the day. Older adults who walk just 15 minutes a day can improve their cardiovascular health as well as their functional health.