One of the most important predictors of how healthy you will be and what quality of life you can expect is your present speed and balance while walking. Your walking need not be very fast or far, but to have a sure-footed gait and be able to walk the length of your home comfortably is a critical factor in your health. Because falls are a major contributor to loss of independence and function preventing falls becomes paramount to keeping seniors safe, independent ,and enjoying life.
An article published in the Journal of American Medicine Association in 2011 titled “Gait Speed and Survival in Older Adults,” pooled data from nine different studies that showed a link between gait speed and survival for the next five years of the subjects’ lives. In these studies, a speed of one meter per second predicted improved survival. This works out be about 78 steps per minute for a man or 90 steps per minute for a woman. This is also equal to crossing a 10-foot room in about three seconds.
Five essential things I emphasize with my patients to keep them walking and healthy are listed:
- Walk every day and whatever level of gait that you have in order to preserve and maintain your current level of function. Walking daily is essential. Equally important is to maintain your home with clear walkways, adequate lighting, and discard any trip hazards. Have grab bars or other safety features installed.
- Have a positive mental outlook. So often, in regard to walking, I hear a four letter word– “can’t.” As long as you use this word, you will not be able to achieve your goals. I often tell of a favorite patient, whom after a long illness in the hospital, was wheelchair bound. He said, “I can’t walk at all, I can’t even stand up.” After finding that his brain and nervous system were intact, I asked him, “How long can you stand for?” He replied, “I can only stand up with my walker for 15 seconds.” I said, “So stand for 15 seconds every hour of the day while you are awake. Once you are comfortable with 15 seconds, go to 30 seconds, then one minute, then two minutes, and so on. Once you can stand a few minutes, start to take a few steps.” This gentleman, who would have remained in a wheelchair forever, was walking and free of the wheelchair within a few weeks of this hourly and daily effort.
- Get an annual physical. You should be screened for diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, thyroid disease, vitamin D deficiency, and others. Recognizing and treating these conditions early can help avoid complications of these diseases that may otherwise result in decreased mobility and falls.
- Maintain a healthy diet and weight. A healthy diet is integral to the treatment of any disease, and likewise there is no disease in which diet does not play a role.
- Stay active. Take part in community activities that involve movement. It has been shown that daily movement is important in many diseases such as reducing dementia, Parkinson’s, and others. You can achieve your daily movement goals and maintain your mobility through walking, swimming, cycling, tai chi, yoga, stretching, bird watching, and other activities.
In summary, maintaining your ability to walk, move, or do related activities is essential to maintaining your health, independence, and quality of life.
Dr. Taubman is a board certified physician in Internal Medicine. He is an Affiliate Assistant Professor at the Charles E Schmidt Medical School at FAU and practices in Glades Medical Group in Boca Raton.