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Walk fast, die old?

Walking faster could be a sign that you’ll live longer, especially if you’re 75 or over. That’s the conclusion of a review of studies into walking speed and life expectancy.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

69x75_senior_woman_walking.jpg

Doctors are interested in reliable ways of telling how long older people may live, because some treatments only provide benefits after many years. There’s little point in someone taking a drug that may reduce the risk of a heart attack in 10 years’ time, for example, if they have less than a year to live.

But just looking at someone’s age isn’t enough. Some people in their 70s still have decades to live, while others are near the end of their lives. How can you tell who is most likely to live long enough to reap the benefits of long-term treatments?

Individual studies have shown a link between the speed at which a person walks and the length of their life. Walking, especially fast walking, requires co-ordination, strength, balance, and energy. If an underlying disease is affecting these things, it’s likely you will walk more slowly.

Researchers have reviewed nine previous studies looking at this topic, to see whether walking speed can be used as a tool for doctors to predict how long older people are likely to live.

What does the new study say?

The review found that usual walking speed related well to life expectancy, especially for people aged 75 or older.

Men aged 75 who walked fastest had an 87 percent chance of living another 10 years, and women a 91 percent chance. By comparison, 75-year-olds who walked most slowly had a much lower chance of living another 10 years, at 19 percent for men and 35 percent for women.

The fastest walking speeds measured were more than 1.4 metres per second, while the slowest speeds were less than half a metre per second. The studies measured people’s usual walking speed, not the fastest speed they could manage.

The researchers used other measures of health relating to the people in the studies, such as whether they’d been diagnosed with an illness or had been in hospital, and their blood pressure, weight, and ability to do everyday tasks. They found walking speed predicted lifespan at least as well as these other measures.

How reliable are the findings?

The summary looked at nine good-quality studies, covering more than 34,000 people aged 65 or over. So the results are likely to be pretty reliable.

Where does the study come from?

The study was done by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the US. It was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

What does this mean for me?

The study shows that people who habitually walk relatively fast are likely to be healthier and live longer. What we don’t know is whether walking fast is actually protective against illness and death, or whether it is simply a sign of good health.

If walking fast is actually protective (for example, by ensuring people get cardiovascular exercise) then it might be a good idea to encourage older people to walk more briskly.

However, it’s also likely that walking fast just means that someone is already healthy, and likely to remain so. In that case, encouraging someone who walked slowly because of ill health to speed up may not make any difference.

What should I do now?

What we do know is that regular walking at a brisk pace is a good way of ensuring you get plenty of exercise. This study suggests that, if you can carry on doing that as you get older, you have a higher chance of a long and healthy life.

Published on January 14, 2011

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