fitness · walking

Walk faster to outrun the grim reaper? No.

On Friday a new study came out that found associations between how fast we walk in midlife (gait speed) and our overall brain and body health. In case you were wondering, here’s the title, from JAMA: Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Functioning with Gait Speed in Midlife.

Popular news outlets sprinted to the scene, putting out headlines urging us to go faster. See this one from Runner’s World:

Caption reads: Slow walkers might age faster than people who pick up the pace. Smaller print: the quicker you stroll, the more likely you are to keep accelerated brain-and-body aging at bay, a new study suggests.
Caption reads: Slow walkers might age faster than people who pick up the pace. Smaller print: the quicker you stroll, the more likely you are to keep accelerated brain-and-body aging at bay, a new study suggests.

This article sounds less sensational but the idea is the same:

Faster walkers at 45 have younger brains, bodies: study
Faster walkers at 45 have younger brains, bodies: study

You may want to know now: is it true? Do we really need to run for our lives?

No. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.
No. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Our bloggers have written about claims connecting walking speed to health and mortality risk for a while now. Martha blogged about an earlier study linking walking speed to good health: Walk your way to long life. And Sam recently blogged about being a slow walker in the midst of this scientific flurry of praise of fast walking: Now Sam’s a slow walker will she die earlier than the rest of you?

Okay. But what did this study actually show? In short, it showed that, in a cohort of 904 people who were followed regularly from age 3 through and past age 45, that the adults in the lowest quintile (20%) of gait speed also had poorer physical health (as assessed by 19 different markers like blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol level, etc.), cognitive function, and accelerated rates of aging, compared with adults with normal gait speed (according to some chart somewhere). Because the study also had early childhood medical information (from age 3), they found that the lowest quintile group also was more likely to have manifested early signs of poorer cognitive health.

Do the researchers (or anyone who doesn’t write for a popular news outlet) think that one’s gait speed contributes to poorer physical and brain health and accelerated aging ? NO

Do the researchers think that walking faster will reduce cognitive decline, accelerated aging and poorer biomarkers of physical health? NO.

All health care providers recommend physical activity for health, but walking fast is not the moral of this story. Or any story, for that matter.

There is one good takeaway for clinicians here: including checks of people’s gaits intermittently through life may provide information to help detect conditions, or prevent advancement of conditions, or to treat them. This is still pretty speculative, as the nature of the association and the causal picture are still very unclear.

In an invited commentary on this article, Dr. Stephanie Sudinsky offers a really clear and important message for public health experts and also those of us who care about health through the lifespan:

The human brain is dynamic; it is constantly reorganizing itself according to exposures and experience. It is affected as an end organ by many other organ systems. Perhaps in this sense, brain health, reflected in brain structure, cognition, and gait speed, is not necessarily a first cause, but rather may be a consequence or mediator of lifelong opportunities and insults.

What this means to me is that it’s important to focus on ways to address early childhood cognitive functioning problems right away, through a variety of means. These means include better nutrition, safer physical environments for play and exercise, stimulation through early education and interventions, etc.

For adults, it means that we should consider expanding our notion of health risks to include those “lifelong mediators of opportunities and insults” like access to food, health care, safe living spaces, accessible opportunities for movement, safer workplaces, etc.

None of us can outrun our own mortality. Walking faster won’t whisk us away from our own aging. Walking more slowly won’t send us into cognitive decline or poorer health.

We know roughly what to do for our own health. If you’re looking for tips, I suggest dancing. At your own speed. That’s what these people in Mozambique did to celebrate World Disability Day in 2017.

Dancers at a fair in Namialo, Mozambique.
Dancers at a fair in Namialo, Mozambique.

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