Walking speed: a new vital sign for seniors

~ By Marc Reyniers ~

There are many vital signs that give an indication about someone’s overall physical health. Physicians check blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, and breathing frequency to see how someone’s body is functioning. But, did you know that walking speed also can be an important vital sign used to predict overall health, well-being, and ability to stay independent as you age? Walking speed, also referred to as “gait velocity”, is measured by timing how fast or slow an individual can walk a certain distance. The test is very easy to complete. All it takes is recording how much time a person needs to walk a distance of 10 feet and calculate the speed, expressed in feet per second (ft/sec).

While walking may seem like a simple and basic activity, it is actual a very complex and orchestrated action. Walking requires seamless coordination of several of our body’s systems such as balance, muscle contractions, neurological responses, and adjustments in cardiovascular and respiratory status. Any change in one or more of these systems can cause a change in someone’s ability to walk, thus reducing walking speed. This is the reason why walking speed is now considered a “vital sign.”

As to be expected, normal values for walking speed change with age. For males and females in their seventies the average comfortable walking speed is about 4.1 ft/sec. For people in their nineties the average comfortable walking speed slows down to about 2.36 ft/sec.
Multiple studies have shown that walking speed can be used as a potential predictor for a variety of functions and activities that are linked to someone’s overall health and independence.

For example, walking speed can indicate whether or not somebody can be expected to be safe when ambulating in the community. One should be able to walk at a speed of 4 ft/sec in order to be able to safely cross at street. Once a person’s speed drops to below 2.9t ft/sec it becomes risky to navigate the city streets.

One of the biggest fears of elderly people is the risk they may fall and sustain a serious injury. An average walking speed of less than1.8 ft/sec predicts that someone is at an increased risk for falls and should take action in order to mitigate the potential for falling.

It is well known that elderly people prefer to stay independent at home as long as possible. Walking speed may give an indication about someone’s ability to take care of him/herself. A senior who can walk at a speed greater than 3.61 ft/sec is likely to have sufficient energy capacity to perform household activities, light yard work, or carrying groceries. On the other hand, a speed of 2.2 ft/sec or less indicates the person will likely have limited energy for self care and may need assistance with tasks such as bathing, dressing, and running a household.

Several studies go even further, claiming there is a correlation between gait velocity and life expectancy. Some authors have proposed that walking speeds faster than 3.28 ft/sec suggest healthier aging and better than average life expectancy, while gait speeds slower than 1.97 ft/sec seem to increase the likelihood of poor health and function. Above 3.94 ft/sec suggests exceptional life expectancy.

In short, most research findings show that taking a simple gait velocity test can be a valuable tool to assess someone’s health and determine a senior’s need to have his or her condition examined by a physician. The test could indicate it would be recommended to take action and engage in gait and balance training with a physical therapist. It could also reveal that the time may have come to consider seeking assistance with activities of daily living to maintain independence at home.

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