Is Walking Speed a New Vital Sign?

The simple activity of taking a brisk 30-minute daily walk can not only help older adults stay healthy and physically fit but how quickly seniors are able to walk could be considered a new vital sign that indicates overall health, according to a recent McMaster Optimal Aging Portal post. 

After a year of social isolation and sheltering at home during a global pandemic, walking has been a source of much-needed stress relief and exercise when gyms closed and other activities were shut down.  Spending time outdoors in nature not only boosts mood and reduces anxiety but maintaining mobility with regular walking helps older adults stay independent and engaged. 

Just like your heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and breathing rate are measured at regular physical check-ups, gait speed is a good indicator of well-being.  Older adults naturally slow down a bit but moving too slowly is associated with an increased risk for disability, cognitive impairment, and falls that may lead to injury, hospitalization, a loss of independent living, or early death. 

To measure a usual walking pace, healthcare practitioners used a 10-Metre Walk Test on a 20-metre path. You can test your own walking speed using these test instructions.  If you are falling a bit short of the average for your age and sex, not to worry; walking speed can be improved with strength and flexibility training and practice walking.  

To be able to cross the street safely before the light changes older adults need to walk at a rate of 1.14 metres per second. Improving walking speed with strength training for leg muscles, stretching to improve joint flexibility and fitness training such as cycling on a stationary bicycle can help train the brain to walk with more efficiency and speed.  

Starting at home walking in place, changing directions, stepping over obstacles, and carrying objects can help improve gait and balance.   Gradually over time, older adults can begin to increase their speed (safely) over short distances.  Walking while listening to music or counting can help support a rhythmic pace.  Try using nordic walking poles for greater stability while strength and endurance improve, making walking easier and more enjoyable. 

As always, talk with your doctor before starting any new exercise program.  Learn more about improving walking speed by taking this Aging Portal online lesson and downloading test instruction and leg exercises.