What does your walk reveal about you?

We have long known that people in their 70s and 80s who walk at a slower pace, die younger.

Research has now revealed that injuries aside, walking more slowly in our 40s is also associated with faster ageing and decline in brain volume. In fact, the biological age difference (as measured by telomere length) between the fastest and slowest walkers was 16 years! Telomeres are the caps at the ends of our chromosomes (carriers of our genetic material) that shorten as we age.

On the flip side, 10 minutes of brisk walking can increase life expectancy for people with chronic diseases (such as asthma, arthritis and cancer) by three years. Bump it up to 22 minutes a day and you’ll add five years to your life.

What constitutes brisk walking? Get breathless. If you can carry on an animated conversation, you’re not walking quickly enough. If you can only get out half a sentence at a time, you’ve nailed it. Habitually walking faster increases life expectancy regardless of body weight or waist circumference, thus walking speed is more important than body weight when it comes to predicting a person’s health. In a study of almost half a million people in the UK, those who had the lowest muscle mass and walked the slowest had the shortest life expectancy (64.8 years for men and 72.4 years for women).

When it comes to walking, our gait can reveal more about us than we realise. People with different types of dementia have unique walking patterns. Researchers tracked 16 distinct walking characteristics (such as pace, rhythm, symmetry, step length) in healthy subjects and compared them with people who had Alzheimer’s or Lewy body dementia (LBD). Not surprisingly, the two latter groups walked more slowly and took shorter steps than healthy controls. In addition, people with LBD (but not Alzheimer’s) tended to walk at an irregular pace and took steps of variable length. Healthy people walk at a consistent pace and take steps of equal length.

The way we walk can also be a clue to visual problems. People with glaucoma frequently bump into things, fall more often and don’t tend to place their feet evenly. If this sounds like you or someone you know, I encourage you to get your eyes checked.

We take it for granted, but a walk a day keeps the doctor away. And the faster the better.

Please forward this Health-e-Byte to anyone who needs to pick up their pace!

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