Gait Speed and Longevity: What You Need to Know

Mother and daughter walking

Despite aging being a normal part of everyday life, it is still something that strikes fear into the hearts of most.

“But why” I hear you ask?

Mainly because in modern day aging is also associated with decline. Declines in physical function and quality of life. Declines in mental health, and even declines in cognitive capabilities.

But what if I told you that it doesn’t have to be like this?

Well the good news is that it doesn’t – and the answer may lie within your gait.

What is gait speed and gait posture?

Your ability to walk essentially underpins your ability to maintain your independence as you get older. It is integral to getting around the house, managing normal tasks of daily living, and even caring for your appearance and brushing your teeth (Peel, 2013).

In short, if you lose your ability to walk, your quality of life declines rapidly.

With that in mind, what is gait speed, and what is gait posture?

Gait speed essentially refers to the speed at which you walk. It is a measure used often in geriatric settings as an excellent way of estimating the functional capacity of older individuals.

And gait posture?

Well that simply refers to the posture you maintain while walking.

While gait speed is often thought to be a better indication of functional capacity than posture, gait posture gives you insight into some of the functional abnormalities that can contribute to deviations away from normal gait.

In this manner they are both quite important.

What factors contribute to gait speed?

When we think of walking, we don’t often consider it as a complex movement task – but that’s is exactly what it is (Ferrucci, 2000).

In fact, the ability to maintain normal gait speed is dependent on a few extremely important factors, that can be further classified into six key physiological subsystems:

  1. Central nervous system (the ability to coordinate movement)
  2. Perceptual system (the ability to receive and comprehend sensory information)
  3. Peripheral nervous system (the ability to coordinate muscular contractions)
  4. Muscles (strength and stability)
  5. Bones and joints (a strong foundation for movement)
  6. Energy production and delivery (the ability to breakdown and use compounds for energy)

If any of these key factors become dysfunctional in any way, then walking slows, and functional capacity declines.

Can childhood gait affect my gait as an adult?

Boy walking to school with backpack

Now this where things get interesting. While declines in any one of these systems in older adulthood can indeed lead to declines in gait as an adult, there are also certain childhood factors that have been shown to result in poor gait in adulthood (Rasmussen, 2019).

More importantly, these factors aren’t strictly related to childhood gait disorders, either.

Those children (aged less than 3 years) who had poorer neurocognitive functioning (poorer language skills) and slower motor skill development will be more likely to have slower gait speed as middle-aged adults than those who score high on those measures.

This provides a clear demonstration that ensuring optimal cognitive and motor development during childhood can indeed have long lasting effects across the entire lifespan.

Gait and Longevity

Taking the above information into consideration, it should come as no surprise that people with gait abnormalities and uncommon gait types may be at a disadvantage from a longevity perspective.

Particularly when we are talking about changes in gait speed…

Does gait speed provide an indicator for longevity?

There is a vast amount of research clearly demonstrating that those individuals who maintain faster gait speeds are more likely to live longer than those who do not (Studenski, 2011). 

To keep it simple, because gait speed provides us with such a good indication of functional capacity and quality of life, it also provides a very good indication of declines in quality of life. As a result, both slow gait speed and reductions in gait speed have a strong association with declines in life expectancy.

Pretty incredible really.

Is gait posture an indicator for longevity

Much like normal gait speed, normal gait posture can also provide some insight into longevity. In this manner, those older individuals who develop poor gait posture also see a reduction in life expectancy compared to those who do not.

These changes can include:

  • A shortened stride length
  • Excessively rounded back position
  • An inability to lift feet from the ground, resulting in short ‘shuffle’ steps
  • The need for a waling aid (such as a walking frame)

As with gait speed, each of these changes indicate a loss of physical and neural capacity, that can contribute to a significant loss of independence.

Related Article: Lengthen Healthspan Through Exercise

Gait and cognitive function

Finally, while gait is often considered to be primarily an expression of physical function, it is also important to remember that it relies on some cognitive factors too – namely the ability to perceive the surrounding environment, think through movement tasks, and coordinate movement.

As a result, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that declines in gait speed have extremely strong associations with a loss of cognitive function. Moreover, those individuals who have lower gait speeds are at a much higher risk of developing dementia as an older adult (Peel, 2019).

So, we can easily see that gait speed is not only linked to longevity in the physical sense, but in a mental sense too.

Related Article: Lifestyle Recommendations To Prevent Cognitive Decline

Can gait be corrected?

On a positive note, while declines in gait speed and gait posture do often occur with age, they don’t have to.

In fact, I would go as far as to say they shouldn’t.

See, a loss of gait is most commonly driven by a loss of muscle strength and a decline in neuromuscular coordination – and fortunately, each of these factors can be maintained through participation in regular exercise (Van Abbema, 2015; Hortobágyi, 2015).

With this in mind, both gait speed and gait posture can also be improved through regular exercise.

How does exercise affect gait?

Man running in the snow

Well, it currently appears that progressive resistance training (AKA lifting weights) offers the most effective mode of exercise to improve all aspects of gait. To keep it simple, this is because weight training improves both neuromuscular coordination and muscle strength.

To get additional benefits, it appears that using free weight exercise (such as squats, lunges, and deadlifts) may have better carryover to gait. Moreover, adding a rhythmic component to the exercise (such as lifting weights to a metronome or set tempo) appears to improve outcomes even further.

I have said it before, and I will say it again – the fountain of youth has been sitting right under our nose this whole time!

Does gait correction slow down cognitive decline?

You now know that declines in gait speed have strong associations with declines in cognitive function. You also know that gait speed can be corrected through resistance exercise.

But does this effect cognitive decline?

In short, yes.

While the exact mechanisms remain somewhat unclear, it is well established that participating in a detailed weight training program can improve cognitive function in the elderly. As a result, it can slow down age related cognitive decline in an extremely significant manner (all while causing simultaneous improvements in gait speed) (Li, 2018).

While we can’t be sure as to whether these improvements in cognition are due to the improvements in gait speed themselves, or simply a result of the resistance training – it doesn’t really matter, because they both improve together.

Tips to improve gait speed throughout life

Woman weightlifting

I wanted to finish this article by outlining my best tips to improve human gait across the lifespan – so, without further ado:

  • Perform resistance training 2-3 times per week: this is a surefire way to maintain strength and coordination throughout the entirety of your life, leading to a maintenance of gait. Within this, make sure to prioritize compound free-weight exercises.
  • Get outside for a walk on uneven terrain 2-3 times per week: although walking itself has been shown to have minimal impact on gait, getting outside and walking over uneven ground stimulates your sensory systems, improving your ability to use environmental information and adjust your gait accordingly. This is integral to the maintenance of gait.
  • Keep yourself cognitively active: this means actively reading, participating in puzzles and problem-solving games, and learning new information throughout your entire life. When it comes to gait, you want to keep your mind as sharp as your muscles!

And there you have it.

If you manage to adhere to these three tips across the duration of your life, then you will go a very long way to ensuring you maintain your gait and your health.

Take Home Message

Whoever thought that the way in which you walk could be so important? However, when we think about it in a little more detail, it starts to make sense.

Walking requires the integration of every single one of the body’s physiological systems. A decline in any one of them resulting in a decline in gait. As a result, it provides a clear indication of functional capacity and quality of life.

Fortunately, using the tips outlined in this article you can maintain your gait – and your function – well into your golden years. So, what are you waiting for?

References

Peel, Nancye M., Suzanne S. Kuys, and Kerenaftali Klein. “Gait speed as a measure in geriatric assessment in clinical settings. A systematic review.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series A 68.1 (2013): 39-46.

Ferrucci, Luigi, et al. “Subsystems contributing to the decline in ability to walk. Bridging the gap between epidemiology and geriatric practice in the InCHIANTI study.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 48.12 (2000): 1618-1625.

Rasmussen, Line Jee Hartmann, et al. “Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Function With Gait Speed in Midlife.” JAMA Network Open 2.10 (2019): e1913123-e1913123.

Studenski, Stephanie, et al. “Gait speed and survival in older adults.” Jama 305.1 (2011): 50-58.

Peel, Nancye May, et al. “The association between gait speed and cognitive status in community. Dwelling older people: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series A 74.6 (2018): 943-948.

References

Van Abbema, Renske, et al. “What type, or combination of exercise can improve preferred gait speed in older adults? A meta-analysis.” BMC geriatrics 15.1 (2015): 72.

Hortobágyi, Tibor, et al. “Effects of three types of exercise interventions on healthy old adults’ gait speed. A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Sports medicine 45.12 (2015): 1627-1643.

Li, Zhihui, et al. “The effect of resistance training on cognitive function in the older adults. A systematic review of randomized clinical trials.” Aging clinical and experimental research 30.11 (2018): 1259-1273.

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