How fast you walk could have implications beyond how quickly you get to your destination. In fact, your “gait speed” could say a lot about how quickly you’re aging, a new study suggests.
The study out of Duke University found the walking speed of 45-year-olds can be used as a marker of their aging brains and bodies.
The lungs, teeth and immune systems of slow walkers were discovered to be in worse shape than people who walked faster. When compared to fast walkers, slow walkers were found to have “accelerated aging” on a 19-measure scale, researchers said.
The data comes from a longitudinal study of 904 people born in the same year in Dunedin, New Zealand.
The participants initially underwent neurocognitive testing at age three, but have been tested and surveyed at various points throughout their lives — most recently, at age 45.
Researchers estimated how fast they were aging by using 19 health markers, including body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, fitness level and other measures. They then compared those with the slowest average walking speeds to people with the highest average speeds.
Slower gait speed at age 45 was found to be associated with worse physical and cognitive function.
Researchers also found the participant scores on IQ, language comprehension, frustration tolerance, motor skills and emotional control at age three predicted their walking speed at age 45.
These results are crucial because “doctors know that slow walkers in their 70s and 80s tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age,” Terrie E. Moffitt, senior author of the study, told Science Daily.
“This study covered a period from the preschool years to midlife and found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age.”
MRI exams conducted recently found that slower walkers, on average, had lower total brain volume, lower mean cortical thickness, less brain surface area and higher incidence of white matter “hyperintensities” — or small lesions associated with small vessel disease of the brain.
In effect, this study has found a sign in early life of who will become a slow walker and, consequently, who will experience poorer health later on in life.
“The interesting thing is walking seems like such a simple thing to do, but it requires the function and interplay of a lot of different organ systems,” lead researcher Line J.H. Rasmussen told Today.com.
Walking is considered a good indicator of health because “you need your lungs to function, you need your brain to be well-functioning, your nervous system, your muscles, your aerobic capacity .”
“We may have a chance here to see who’s going to do better health-wise in later life,” Rasmussen said in an interview with Science Daily.
This isn’t the first time doctors have determined a link between walking speed and health.
In June, a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that people who walk fast can add, on average, up to 15 to 20 years to their lives.
The large U.K.-based study collected data from almost 475,000 people with an average age of 52.
“Studies published so far have mainly shown the impact of body weight and physical fitness on mortality in terms of relative risk,” co-author Francesco Zaccardi, a clinical epidemiologist at the Leicester Diabetes Center, said in a statement.
“However, it is not always easy to interpret a ‘relative risk.’ Reporting in terms of life expectancy, conversely, is easier to interpret and gives a better idea of the separate and joint importance of body mass index and physical fitness.”
Lead author and professor Tom Yates with the University of Leicester added that the research indicated measuring exercise may be more beneficial to the body than BMI alone.
“In other words, the findings suggest that perhaps physical fitness is a better indicator of life expectancy than BMI and that encouraging the population to engage in brisk walking may add years to their lives,” Yates said.
The study found participants who reported taking brisk walks had a long life expectancy regardless of BMI. For women, this was a life expectancy of 86.7 to 87.8 years and for men, 85.2 to 86.8 years.
“Conversely, subjects reporting slow walking pace had shorter life expectancies,” the authors added, noting the life expectancy was 72.4 years for women and 64.8 years for men. This meant, on average, women who took brisk walks could live up to 15 years longer while men could live an additional 20 years.
Proper walking tips
Gareth Nock, national team training coach with GoodLife Fitness, suggests some helpful tips for brisk walkers here:
Wear the right shoes: Look for sneakers or walking shoes that are flexible and have a good level of support.
Watch your posture: “Stand tall with your eyes up and your shoulders back,” he said. “Many people tend to let their heads fall forward so focus on rolling your shoulders back and down and looking ahead. Focus on drawing your navel towards your spine (abdominals braced) to support your lower back and overall posture.”
Swing your arms: “Arms should swing naturally and loosely from the shoulders,” he said. Move the opposite arm to the leg that is stepping forward and keep your wrists straight, your hands unclenched and your elbows close to your sides.
Take faster — not longer — steps to increase speed: Lengthening your stride can put a strain on your feet and legs.
“Walk lightly and allow your heel to touch the ground first,” Nock said.
Add interval training to improve your cardiovascular stamina: “For example, speed up for a minute or two every five minutes. Or alternate one fast mile with two slower miles,” he added.
Try hills to build strength and burn calories: If you’re going uphill, lean forward slightly to take the pressure off your leg muscles.
“Walking downhill can be harder on your knees and may leave you with sore muscles,” Nock explained. “Slow down, keep your knees bent to absorb impact and take shorter steps.”
Use poles to work your upper body: If you need to, invest in walking poles.
“When you step forward with the left foot, the right arm comes forward to plant the pole on the ground, about even with the heel of the left foot. This works the muscles of your upper body and reduces stress on your knees,” Nock said.
— With files from Arti Patel
© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.