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Walking Faster May Lead to a Longer Life

Study Shows a Link Between Walking Speed and Life Span
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 4, 2011 -- A swift stride puts you on the path to a longer, healthier life, researchers say.

Scientists reporting in The Journal of the American Medical Association say that older adults who typically walk 1 meter per second or faster live longer than expected. A walking, or gait, speed of 1 meter per second is equal to 3.28 feet per second.

Walking speed can be an important sign of someone's overall health. A slow walking speed may be due to multiple causes including heart, lung, or nervous system problems, or even joint pain. Several studies have suggested that a person with a walking speed slower than 0.6 meters per second (less than 2 feet per second) may be at increased risk for poor health and function.

Stephanie Studenski, MD, MPH, of the University of Pittsburgh, analyzed the collective results of nine previous studies to determine if walking speed explained survival differences among older adults and whether it could be used to predict longevity.

Study participants walked at their usual pace from a standing start, while researchers calculated distance in meters and time in seconds. The average age of the participants was 73.5; a majority were white women.

Faster Pace Boosts Life Span

The average walking speed for the study participants was 0.92 meters per second, or about 3 feet per second. A person's predicted life expectancy for each sex and age group increased the faster they could walk.

The survival differences were especially notable among patients age 75 and older. The predicted 10-year survival rate varied greatly with walking speeds, from 19% to 87% in men and from 35% to 91% in women.

“Gait speeds of 1.0 meter [3.28 feet]/second or higher consistently demonstrated survival that was longer than expected by age and sex alone. In this older adult population the relationship of gait speed with remaining years of life was consistent across age groups, but the absolute number of expected remaining years of life was larger at younger ages,” the researchers write.

Calculating life expectancy based on walking speed, sex, and age was as accurate as predictions based on other factors, such as age, sex, overall health, mobility, hospitalization, and smoking history.

Walking Speed Predicts Survival

Considering a person's walking speed along with their age and sex is a simple, inexpensive, and useful way to estimate a patient's expected length of life, the researchers say. All that is needed is a stopwatch and a walkway. Life expectancy estimates can help doctors develop a better, individualized plan of care for patients.

"Gait speed might help identify older adults with a high probability of living for 5 or 10 more years, who may be appropriate targets for preventive interventions that require years for benefit," the team writes.

Regular walking speed measurements could also be used to monitor a person over time to check for signs of ailing health, the researchers say.

Not everyone agrees that walking speed measurements should sway preventive care at the current time. In an accompanying editorial to the journal article, Rome-based researcher Matteo Cesari, MD, PhD, says that walking speed improvements have not been definitively linked with better health outcomes. He encourages future research to determine if a person's walking speed may change the way in which he or she is labeled "geriatric."

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