Slow walkers at risk of poor health


  • Fitness
  • Friday, 15 Nov 2019

Your gait speed at 45 years of age can tell a lot about the state of your brain and body. — TNS

As ironic as it may sound, from the moment we are born, we all start to age.

But besides the wrinkles, grey hair and the occasional memory lapse, how do you measure the ageing process?

Apparently, there is some link between your walking speed at midlife, and the state of your brain and body.

Gait speed can offer many clues about a person’s health, even at a younger age.

According to the much talked about study published in October (2019) in the journal JAMA Network Open, gait speed measured at 45 years is associated with accelerated biological ageing, neurocognitive function and cognitive decline.

A smaller brain

The findings come from a 40-year study of over 900 New Zealanders who were born between 1972 and 1973.

Doctors had regularly assessed their health since they were three years old, and when they reached 45, the participants had their gait speed measured.

As it turns out, the neurocognitive testing these individuals took as children, predicted who would become slower walkers.

At age three, their scores on IQ (intelligence quotient), understanding language, frustration tolerance, motor skills and emotional control predicted their walking speed at age 45.

“Doctors know that slow walkers in their 70s and 80s tend to die sooner than fast walkers the same age.

“But this study covered the period from the preschool years to midlife, and found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age,” said senior author Dr Terrie E. Moffitt, a professor of psychology at Duke University, United States, and professor of social development at King’s College London, United Kingdom, in a statement.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) exams during their last assessment showed that the slower walkers tended to have lower total brain volume, lower mean cortical thickness, less brain surface area and higher incidence of white matter “hyperintensities” – small lesions associated with small vessel disease of the brain.

In short, their brains appeared somewhat smaller.

The researchers estimated how fast this cohort was ageing by looking at 19 health markers, including body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, fitness level, cholesterol level and other measures, plus the rate of facial ageing.

Not only were the slow walkers’ lungs, teeth and immune system in poorer shape than fast walkers, their faces also looked older to a panel of eight screeners who assessed each participant’s facial age from a photograph.

The study then compared people with the slowest average walking speed (with a mean gait of 1.2m/s to people with the highest average walking speed (1.75m/s).

It turned out slower gait speed at 45 was associated with worse physical and cognitive function, and an accelerated rate of ageing.

The children who grew up to be the slowest walkers had, on average, an IQ 12 points lower than those who were the fastest walkers 40 years later.

Some of the differences in health and cognition may also be tied to lifestyle choices these individuals have made, and the state of their health at the start of their life.

Using poles while walking can help increase your walking intensity. — AFPUsing poles while walking can help increase your walking intensity. — AFP

It’s a sign

Try this to measure your walking speed:

• Take two pieces of tape and mark a line measuring 6m (about 20 feet), which was the length used in this study.

• Walk that distance at your usual pace while measuring how many seconds it takes you to do that with a stopwatch.

• Divide the distance (20 feet in this example) by the time result to give you a certain amount of feet per second.

If you are walking at a speed of about 3.6 feet per second or slower in your 40s, then there is a high chance you may need interventions to prevent disability and dementia later in life.

However, you’re either born a fast or slow walker, and your leg length has nothing to do with your gait speed either.

Fear not though, if you’re a naturally slow walker, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed for ill health in later life.

Making yourself walk faster isn’t the solution either. It’s just a sign that you should try to adopt a healthier lifestyle by cutting down on cigarettes, alcohol, fatty foods and stress.

You only walk on this earth once, so eat, drink and be merry, but do everything in moderation.

Walking for better health

Walking is one of the easiest exercises to do and doesn’t require much, other than good walking shoes and a buddy to keep you motivated.

How many calories you burn while walking depends on three factors: distance, speed and your weight.

And distance matters more than speed.

The average person generally walks at a pace of four miles (6.4km) an hour and a 180 pound (81.6kg) person can burn about 100 calories for every mile (1.6km) walked.

The heavier you weigh, the more you burn.

Walking at a brisk pace is a moderate-intensity cardio exercise, which is what you need to keep your body healthy.Children who grew up to be the slowest walkers had, on average, an IQ 12 points lower than those who became the fastest walkers. — 123rf.comChildren who grew up to be the slowest walkers had, on average, an IQ 12 points lower than those who became the fastest walkers. — 123rf.com

The speed of a brisk pace is different for each person as it depends on your heart rate, age and level of fitness.

A brisk walking pace can be from 13 to 20 minutes per mile (1.6km), or from 3mph (4.8km/h) to 4mph (6.4km/h).

To get into the fitness zone and get your heart rate up, you need to walk faster.

Using good walking posture, back-and-forth arm motion and rolling through each step from heel to toe, can not only speed you up, but will also help you breathe better and walk easier.

Don’t look down, but in front, when you’re walking. By doing this, you can see what’s ahead and brace yourself for any uneven terrain ahead.

You should be breathing heavier, but still able to speak in short sentences. You should be able to talk, but you should not be able to sing.

Working at this pace should be your goal for most of your walking workouts for fitness or weight loss.

As you increase your fitness, you may not be able to walk fast enough to get into the moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity zones.

Adding hills or stairs may increase your intensity at a lower speed. Using poles to walk can also increase your heart rate at the same speed.

Many people think fitness is about going to the gym and have grand ideas of weight loss and ideal bodies, only to fall short over a long period of time.

Walking has been proven to have the highest success ratio of any new exercise and fitness regime.

When people begin to walk more frequently, they often find it a fun and enjoyable part of their routine.

Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.


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