What does your walk say about you?

Author: Bryan Lang, PT, DPT, MHA, CSCS, Cert.DN: Doctor of Physical Therapy, Business Owner, Associate Professor, and Blog Contributor. Explores common client questions, helps find solutions for every day functional health concerns, and interprets difficult theories in healthcare rehabilitation. Committed to life-long learning and education. Learn more about Bryan on Google+.

Believe it or not, your walk can determine anything from what your chances of falling are to how long you will live. Fitz and Lusardi recommended using walking speed as the “6th vital” sign because of its “ability to predict functional decline, mortality, fall risk, and function/physiological changes. [1]” Below are scientific studies that focused on the footprints of knowledge that walking leaves behind:

1. Fall Risk. If someone walks slowly or if he/she walks with a narrow base of support, it can predict an increased likelihood that a person will fall.  This becomes a big problem as you get older with the biggest scare being if you break a hip. One out of five patients with a hip fracture die within a year of their injury [2].

2. Memory Loss. Walking speed and memory complaints can predict dementia [3]. Not only can walking speed help predict the onset of dementia, walking in general has been shown to help treat Alzheimer’s. A study by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that exercising 150 minutes a week improved memory recall and increased activation intensity in 11 areas of the brain. The researchers also found that after 12 weeks of exercise for 150 minutes the patients needed to use less of their brain to do the same memory tasks they did before; meaning they were more efficient. No drug has been able to show this same feat [4].

3. Orthopedic Injuries. The speed of your walk can help health providers identify issues pertaining to your joints and/or muscles during dynamic movement. Physical therapists use this information to help diagnose a number of conditions, including conditions such as hip/knee osteoarthritis, tight hip flexors, and plantar fasciitis. Here are a couple other examples that are commonly seen and addressed in the clinic:

  • If someone walks with a swagger, or walks like they are going down a runway (hips moving up and down a lot), it is indicative of weak hip muscles; specifically the gluteus medius [5]. This extra wobble can cause rotation in the back, which can lead to structural problems and pain over time.

  • If someone is walking and you can hear their foot slap as they hit the ground it maybe indicative of uncontrolled diabetes or a neurological condition. When you hear a foot that slaps the ground as it lands, it means that the muscles that keep your toes pointed upwards as you first place your heel on the ground are not working [6]. It is likely that the nerve that powers the muscles in the foot cannot keep the toes off the ground and therefore a “slap” is heard. This can also happen to people after a stroke.

4. Mortality Risk. A test called the “6 Minute Walk Test” can predict the risk of death in patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) [7].  The test is so significant, that researchers were able to predict that if a person with CHF walked less than 300 meters (984 feet) in 6 minutes, his/her chances of survival in the next 3 years was only 62% [8].

5. Perception. Your walk makes a big impression on what people think of you.  Researchers video taped a man and a woman walking and then animated their walks as stick figures. They asked participants in the study to then rate each stick figure on certain personality traits. Raters were very consistent in their judgments on the stick figures. For example, if one rater perceived a stick figure as a male or attractive, the other raters usually did too [9].

All in all, walking is important and it promotes movement throughout our entire body that is crucial for our health and well-being. Should you have any questions regarding wanting to start your own walking program or have concerns with symptoms you have while walking, don’t hesitate to contact us – put the right foot forward, today!