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Walking speed, part 2: What can you do to improve walking speed?

The Bottom Line

  • Walking speed is an indicator of your overall health. Improving your walking speed is associated with improvements in 8 year survival.
  • Improving your walking speed involves improving the strength of your body structures involved in walking. This includes your cardiovascular fitness as well as the strength and flexibility of your muscles and nerves.
  • Improving your walking speed involves practicing walking in various ways that improves our brain patterns used in walking.

In part 1 of this blog series on walking speed we noted that our walking gets slower as we get older. Studies have shown a link between our walking speed, how well we move and how long we live (1;2). In this second part of this series we discuss how to improve your walking speed.

How does our walking speed change with age?

As we age our walking gets:

  • slower
  • less stable when we walk
  • less efficient
  • the steps we take are less coordinated and
  • the timing is poor (3)

Our posture may not be upright and flexible (4), and together with decreased vision and hearing, this makes it harder for us to respond to our environment when we are walking. However, these changes need not limit you.

How can you improve your walking speed? Strengthen the body structures!

If we notice that we are getting slower in our walking here are some strategies we can use to maintain an efficient walking speed (4;5).

There are TWO approaches to improving your walking speed. The first approach addresses the structural changes we are experiencing in our body as we age. It is important to find ways to improve these structural changes; these body parts are the necessary 'machinery' we need to walk. These structural changes include changes in muscle strength in our legs and in our trunk which we need to stabilize ourselves as we walk (6;7). We also need our joints to be flexible so the muscles can move our limbs efficiently, for example, in the length of the steps we take when we walk (8). Changes we might notice in our body structures could include, being unable to extend your leg behind you in order to step forwards, or difficulty standing on your legs for longer periods (12) or difficulty lifting your foot as you swing your leg forwards.

One recent systematic review found that exercise interventions can improve walking speed and measures of physical function in frail older adults (9). Another systematic review of studies in healthy older adults found that resistance training to strengthen the leg muscles was the most effective way to improve gait speed (10).

Table 1 below provides a summary of exercises that have been shown to improve body structures for walking more efficiently.

Table 1: Exercises that research has shown to improve your body structures necessary for walking

Target Purpose
Exercise
Strengthening for leg muscles (10-14)
To improve strength of leg muscles used in walking
Repeated standing and sitting from a chair

Stand close to a support and practice rising up onto your toes and then back on your heels
Stretching (15)
To improve the flexibility of the joints in your leg
Standing on the edge of a step with your forefoot supported, support yourself with your arms, depress your heel

Lying on your (left) side raise your right leg and move it backwards as far as you can. Hold and then return it. Repeat on the other side
General fitness (16;17)
To ensure efficient delivery of oxygen to muscles while you walk
Cycling on a stationary bike
Marching on the spot


How can you improve your walking speed? Practicing walking to improve the patterning in your brain that controls walking?

The second approach to improving your walking speed involves the training of your brain to walk more efficiently.

We can improve our walking by practicing, which restores the brain pattern used to engage the muscles and nerves to better meet the demands made by walking (18). We also need a basic level of fitness, involving our cardiorespiratory system, to walk efficiently. This means we do not experience breathlessness as we walk and there is efficient delivery of oxygen to the muscles. If walking takes a lot of energy, you will do it less often compared to persons who don't feel tired when they walk. Improvements in walking occur when our brains, muscles, joints and nerves respond more efficiently to meet the demands of walking (19;20). Skilled walkers tend to have an efficient approach to walking and are more likely to walk more and experience less difficulty with moving generally (21).

Two studies which included mostly older adults who either had mild (22) or moderate (23) problems with walking have evaluated this problem. These studies showed that exercise interventions that focused on walking activities resulted in greater improvements in walking speed compared to those that focused on structural issues such as strengthening and flexibility alone.

Table 2 shows the best way to improve your walking efficiency. Our overall walking patterns also can be improved by practice. Practice will increase our walking skill, taking less energy to walk, and making it easier to make responses to our environment while we walk.

Table 2: Exercises to improve walking efficiency

Goal Exercise
Modifications
Practice walking
Practice walking and consciously monitor your progress

All these tasks make your walking task more challenging, so that you become more skillful at making adjustments to your walking pattern with less effort
Try and increase your speed safely for short distances

Walk forwards and practice changing directions, walking sideways then forwards and backwards stepping

Practice walking carrying objects

Practice walking to counting or music to make your walking consistently rhythmical

Walk circular paths, clockwise and counterclockwise or pathways following figures of eight
Practice stepping over objects as you walk
Disturbing your walking pattern and adjusting your balance

Your walking speed is good practice for unexpected disturbances when walking
Place several objects at distances across the floor of a room, then practice walking and stepping over the objects; note changes that occur as you step over the object and then start walking again


Bottom line about improving your walking speed

Research shows that our walking speed is an important indicator of our health. In this blog we have identified two approaches that research shows can improve your walking speed. We need to strengthen our body structures used in walking. We also need to practice walking while doing different activities, which improves the control the brain has on our walking and makes our walking more efficient. There is scientific evidence that improvements in gait speed over 1 year were associated with improved survival 8 years later (2).

It is not known whether these exercise regimes to increase walking speed prevent us having problems with moving as we age or increase our life expectancy. You can continue to measure your walking speed from time to time with the instructions from part 1 of this blog series on walking speed.

In this two-part series of blog posts on walking speed we look at what you need to know and how to improve your walking speed. In Part 1, we look at some of the basics and a simple test you can do to determine your walking speed. In Part 2, we discuss how to improve your walking speed.


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References

  1. Studenski S, Perera S, Patel K, Rosano C, Faulkner K, Inzitari M, et al. Gait speed and survival in older adults. JAMA 2011 Jan 5;305(1):50-8.
  2. Hardy SE, Perera S, Roumani YF, Chandler JM, Studenski SA. Improvement in usual gait speed predicts better survival in older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc 2007 Nov;55(11):1727-34.
  3. Kerrigan DC, Todd MK, Della CU, Lipsitz LA, Collins JJ. Biomechanical gait alterations independent of speed in the healthy elderly: evidence for specific limiting impairments. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1998 Mar;79(3):317-22.
  4. McGibbon CA. Toward a better understanding of gait changes with age and disablement: neuromuscular adaptation. Exerc Sport Sci Rev 2003 Apr;31(2):102-8.
  5. Cesari M, Kritchevsky SB, Penninx BW, Nicklas BJ, Simonsick EM, Newman AB, et al. Prognostic value of usual gait speed in well-functioning older people--results from the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. J Am Geriatr Soc 2005 Oct;53(10):1675-80.
  6. Hausdorff JM, Rios DA, Edelberg HK. Gait variability and fall risk in community-living older adults: a 1-year prospective study. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2001 Aug;82(8):1050-6.
  7. Guralnik JM, Ferrucci L, Balfour JL, Volpato S, Di IA. Progressive versus catastrophic loss of the ability to walk: implications for the prevention of mobility loss. J Am Geriatr Soc 2001 Nov;49(11):1463-70.
  8. Rantanen T, Guralnik JM, Ferrucci L, Penninx BW, Leveille S, Sipila S, et al. Coimpairments as predictors of severe walking disability in older women. J Am Geriatr Soc 2001 Jan;49(1):21-7.
  9. Gine-Garriga M, Roque-Figuls M, Coll-Planas, Sitja-Rabert M, Salva A. Physical exercise interventions for improving performance-based measures of physical function in community-dwelling frail older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2014;95(4):753-69. 
  10. Hortobagyi T, Lesinski M, Gabler M, VanSwearingen JM, Malatesta D, Granacher U. Effects of three types of exercise interventions on healthy old adults' gait speed: A systematic review. Sports Med 2015 Dec;45(12):1627-43.
  11. Chandler JM, Duncan PW, Kochersberger G, Studenski S. Is lower extremity strength gain associated with improvement in physical performance and disability in frail, community-dwelling elders? Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1998 Jan;79(1):24-30.
  12. Brown M, Sinacore DR, Host HH. The relationship of strength to function in the older adult. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 1995 Nov;50 Spec No:55-9.
  13. Manini T, Marko M, VanArnam T, Cook S, Fernhall B, Burke J, et al. Efficacy of resistance and task-specific exercise in older adults who modify tasks of everyday life. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2007 Jun;62(6):616-23.
  14. Buchner DM, Cress ME, de Lateur BJ, Esselman PC, Margherita AJ, Price R, et al. The effect of strength and endurance training on gait, balance, fall risk, and health services use in community-living older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 1997 Jul;52(4):M218-M224.
  15. Kerrigan DC, Xenopoulos-Oddsson A, Sullivan MJ, Lelas JJ, Riley PO. Effect of a hip flexor-stretching program on gait in the elderly. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2003 Jan;84(1):1-6.
  16. Harada ND, Chiu V, Stewart AL. Mobility-related function in older adults: assessment with a 6-minute walk test. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1999 Jul;80(7):837-41.
  17. Newman MA, Dawes H, van den Berg M, Wade DT, Burridge J, Izadi H. Can aerobic treadmill training reduce the effort of walking and fatigue in people with multiple sclerosis: a pilot study. Mult Scler 2007 Jan;13(1):113-9.
  18. Capaday C. The special nature of human walking and its neural control. Trends Neurosci 2002 Jul;25(7):370-6.
  19. Milton J, Solodkin A, Hlustik P, Small SL. The mind of expert motor performance is cool and focused. Neuroimage 2007 Apr 1;35(2):804-13.
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  21. VanSwearingen JM, Perera S, Brach JS, Wert D, Studenski SA. Impact of exercise to improve gait efficiency on activity and participation in older adults with mobility limitations: a randomized controlled trial. Phys Ther 2011 Dec;91(12):1740-51.
  22. Brach JS, Van Swearingen JM, Perera S, Wert DM, Studenski S. Motor learning versus standard walking exercise in older adults with subclinical gait dysfunction: a randomized clinical trial. J Am Geriatr Soc 2013 Nov;61(11):1879-86.
  23. VanSwearingen JM, Perera S, Brach JS, Cham R, Rosano C, Studenski SA. A randomized trial of two forms of therapeutic activity to improve walking: effect on the energy cost of walking. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2009 Nov;64(11):1190-8.

DISCLAIMER: The blogs are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own healthcare professionals.

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