Study: Slow Walkers Might Age Faster Than People Who Pick Up the Pace

  • People with slower walking speeds show signs of more accelerated aging than those who walk faster, new research published in JAMA Network Open found.
  • Slower walkers showed a greater reduction in brain volume, and also scored lower on tests of balance and grip strength.
  • Speeding up your normal walking pace can help your body function better, researchers say.

Ambling along at a leisurely pace might seem like an ideal anti-stress strategy, but if slow-and-steady is your usual speed, it could be an indication that you’re aging more quickly than someone with a faster gait.New research published in JAMA Network Open used data from a long-term study collecting health information on over 900 New Zealanders over a 40-year period that started when the participants were around 3 years old. They assessed gait speed in April of this year, focusing on the slowest 20 percent and fastest 20 percent throughout three walking conditions: at their usual gait, at their normal pace while reciting alternate letters of the alphabet out loud, and at their maximum gait speed.

Speed was determined using a GAITRite Electronic Walkway, a system that provides gait analysis and identifies anomalies. Unlike a treadmill, this device—which looks like a very long yoga mat—is flat on the ground and features pressure sensors that can measure speed and walking patterns.

The slowest walkers averaged 1.21 meters per second (m/s), or roughly 2.7 miles per hour, throughout all three of the conditions, while the fastest walkers averaged 1.75 m/s, or 3.9 miles per hour.

They also had 19 biomarkers assessed, including body mass index (BMI), waist-to-hip ratio, cholesterol levels, white blood cell count, gum health, and cardiorespiratory fitness. Finally, they had neuroimaging tests to look at age-related features of the brain.

Researchers discovered that those with the slowest walking speed showed accelerated aging across the various biomarkers, as well as a reduction in total brain volume, showing that that walking speed can affect both physical and cognitive health.

In fact, there was even a 16-point IQ difference between the fastest and the slowest walkers, the study found. Slower walkers were also judged to appear significantly older than faster walkers, and scored worse on tests that measured balance and grip strength.

“How fast people are walking in midlife tells us a lot about how much their bodies and brains have aged over time,” said lead researcher Line Rasmussen, Ph.D., of Duke University.

She told Runner’s World the most remarkable aspect of the research is that they may be able to look at cognitive functions in toddlers—how well they do on an IQ test, their proficiency at language, how easily they manage their emotions—and predict how slowly those children will be walking at midlife.

“Gait speed is not only an indicator of aging, but also an indicator of lifelong brain health,” she said.

Does that mean those kids are destined to be slow walkers, and therefore at a disadvantage health-wise when they get older? Not necessarily, Rasmussen added, because there are ways to improve brain health. For example, running.

“Although we didn’t investigate running speed in this study, typically people who love running are also able to walk very fast, because running keeps the brain’s capacity to control bipedal locomotion at its sharpest,” she said. “Running is an excellent way of keeping the body and mind in shape.”

Even speeding up your walking can have benefits, Rasmussen added, because the ability to walk quickly involves the function and interplay of many systems—including central nervous and peripheral nervous systems, cardiorespiratory fitness, muscles, and vision.

“A person’s walking speed depends on the function of all these systems, and reduced walking speed can be a sign of advanced aging and deteriorating function of these organ systems,” she said.

So, slow down when you want to stop and smell the flowers occasionally, but when it comes to keeping your brain sharp, you may want to step up your everyday pace.

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