Walk for your Life

How long will you live? Wish you had a crystal ball? Well a recent analysis of several studies that included 35,000 older adults may be the closest thing to that coveted crystal ball. Researchers found that the faster study participants could walk, the lower their risk of dying. It seems to be a case of “walking — not running — for your life!”

The study cutoff: ability to walk about 20 feet in 10 seconds. The longer it took to cover that distance beyond 10 seconds, the lower the chances of living 10 years more. This association was especially predictive for those older than age 75.

Is Walking Speed Information Really Useful?

• This simple walking test may be a good tool to detect changes in a person’s functional abilities over time.

• Results of this simple test could affect disease screening and aggressive treatment decisions, according to the researchers. For instance, should a frail elder undergo a colonoscopy or mammogram if their expected remaining lifespan is just two or three years?

• Doing poorly on this walking challenge is one indicator of “Frailty Syndrome.” Frailty reflects a darker and grimmer picture in that crystal ball. Risk for falls and serious fractures increases. Losing basic daily living abilities such as dressing, bathing or cooking is a real concern in those who are frail.

How can you improve and maintain walking skills?

• Do simple strengthening (resistance) exercises to pump up your muscles. Each decade after age 50, muscle strength can plummet by nearly 15% while muscle mass drops nearly 10% (see future article on specific techniques for strengthening muscles in frail adults).

• The current guideline from the US Department of Health and Human Services states that all adults older than 65 years should participate in 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise per week. A recent University of Pittsburgh study found that walking just 5 miles a week cut memory loss by 50% in those with mild memory impairment. Those who walked regularly also preserved more brain structure, according to this study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

• Some experts have advocated starting with flexibility exercises followed by strength training and then aerobic activity such as walking.

• Building muscle requires protein like building a house requires bricks. Each day, older adults should eat between 10 to 13 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. Some excellent sources of protein include eggs, milk, nuts, beans and soy (see “Where’s the Protein”).