Focus on Fitness: Walking gait and strategies to improve it

By Gloria Schwartz

The manner in which you walk – known as your gait – is an indicator of vitality and a strong predictor of life expectancy and health. As you move about in your daily activities, think about your preferred gait speed: the speed at which you usually walk. Is it slower than it used to be? Is it slower than other people in your age group? A slow gait can be caused by underlying physical and cognitive deficits.

A longitudinal study of over 900 people spanning four decades tested and compared the participants from age three through age 45. The participants were evaluated on various physical functions including hand-eye coordination, balance and grip strength, and 19 biomarkers including blood pressure, dental health, cardiovascular fitness and waist-to-hip ratio.

They also underwent brain scans at age 45. Slow gait speed in their 40s was associated with significantly poorer physical health and cognitive deficits, including smaller brain volume and more cortical thinning indicative of premature accelerated ageing. Gait speed is sometimes used as a marker of health and fitness in elderly adults; yet, the study showed that gait speed is something to examine in middle-aged adults as well because it may be a warning sign of diseases or premature death decades before symptoms develop.

You can take a 10-metre walking test to determine your gait speed. The test can give you an idea of how you compare to your age group. If you take the test and find you fall below the norm, do not be alarmed. A variety of factors are involved in your gait such as lower body strength, vision, proprioception and aerobic capacity. Discuss your timed results with your doctor to determine if further testing is warranted to identify the causes of your slow gait.

To test your speed, measure a distance of 20 metres in a straight line. There are different variations of this test. A common method is to make a mark on the line at five metres, 15 metres and 20 metres. Someone with a stopwatch must time you. If you normally use a walker or cane, use it for the test. Begin walking at the start of the line at your usual self-selected pace and do not stop until you reach the end. The recorder begins the stopwatch when your toe crosses the five-metre mark and stops the stopwatch when your toe crosses the 15-metre mark (smart phones have stopwatches, usually in the clock app). The first and last five metres aren’t included in the time as they’re used for you to accelerate and decelerate. Perform the test three times then calculate the average time. For example, if you took six, seven and eight seconds to complete the test, your average is seven.

To calculate your speed in metres per second, divide the distance (10) in metres by your average seconds (e.g., 10 divided by seven equals 1.43 metres per second). You can compare your score to the following standardized table of average walking speed (metres per second) by age and gender: Age 20-29, men 1.36,women 1.34; Age 30-39, men 1.43, women 1.34; Age 40-49, men 1.43, women 1.34; age 50-59, men 1.43, women 1.31; Age 60-69, men 1.34, women 1.24; Age 70-79, men 1.26, women 1.13; Age 90-99, men 0.97, women 0.94.

Studies show that the best strategy to improve gait speed is to work on strengthening your lower body with progressive resistance training with high intensities. There are numerous exercises to target these muscle groups. Ask your personal trainer or physiotherapist for recommendations. Surprisingly, adding balance or endurance training hasn’t been shown to significantly improve gait speed. However, adding music to provide a rhythmic component to your exercise helps with gait speed as it trains cognitive functions important for gait.

Stretching to improve your range of motion or flexibility in your hip flexors allows you to take longer strides which may improve speed.

Practicing walking helps improve your cardiovascular fitness which will provide the needed oxygen to the muscles and keep you from feeling breathless. Walking on a treadmill is unidirectional at a controlled speed. To work on motor skills, walk on the floor or outdoors in different directions, (e.g., side to side, forwards and backwards or along a curved path); this can improve performance and create a more efficient system for walking that requires less energy and therefore leaves you less fatigued.

Being proactive about your fitness can improve your quality of life. With proper training you can increase your gait speed, walk with more confidence and potentially increase your lifespan.