How Fast You Walk Offers Clues About Your Lifespan

Gait speed is a longevity indicator

Russell Sadur/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Did you know that your walking speed reveals clues about how long you may live?  Researchers have examined the gait speed of subjects in numerous longitudinal studies, and found that how fast the older adults walk is correlated with their risk of death in the future.

Gait speed research:  In 2011 a large, pooled analysis was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examining gait speed and survival in older adults.

 The authors - a group of epidemiologists from the University of Pittsburgh, from Spain, Italy and elsewhere - write that lifespan statistics offer only a broad view of a person's chances of survival, rather than insight into how any individual may fare over time.  Since gait or walking speed has been linked to life span in past research, and can be a measure of overall health and ability to function in day to day activities, the scientists set out to see whether gait speed could be used as a longevity predictor.

Led by Stephanie Studenski of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine, the team examined 9 separate studies involving more than 34,400 adults aged 65 or older (average age 73) living independently in the community.  In the varied papers, subjects were followed up for a range of 6 to 21 years.

How is walking speed measured?  As you might expect, gait speed is simply a measure of how fast you walk a given distance in a specific period of time.

 In all the studies, subjects were told to walk at their usual pace, from a standing start.  

Gait speed was calculated in meters per second, and distances were standardized to 4 meters (13 ft) regardless of how far participants were asked to walk.

What they found: After analyzing the nine studies, the researchers found that the faster a person naturally walked, the better their longevity.

 A speed of 0.8 meter/second (about 1.8 miles per hour) was linked with predicted life expectancy for that person's age and gender. In other words, someone who's over the age of 65 and walks a usual pace of just less than 2 miles per hour would likely enjoy average life expectancy. Results were consistent after adjusting for risk factors like body mass index, smoking status, blood pressure and the existence of age-related illness.

The team suggests that healthy ranges would be useful for physicians and therapists to evaluate their patients.  Older adults walking slower than 0.6 meter/second (1.3 miles/hour) were found to be at higher risk of poor health and mobility, while a gait speed of more than 1 meter/second (2.2 miles/hour) was consistently shown to indicate better-than-average life expectancy and overall health than that predicted from age and sex alone.

Overall, for every additional 0.1 meter/second increment, subjects enjoyed a 12% drop in risk of death over the following decade.

Should I speed up for better results?  Studenski's team examined usual walking pace, although some studies have assessed subjects' fastest gait speed.  Looking at how quickly a person is able to walk didn't yield any superior results - or conclusions - with respect to life expectancy. 

Why would walking speed predict longevity?  How capably you move is a measure of physical strength, postural stability, and balance.  As the researchers write in their JAMA paper, walking takes energy and control over movement, and enlists input from your heart, lungs, and nervous and musculoskeletal systems.  Not only may a slower gait speed suggest compromised energy levels in an aging person, but hidden illness as well.  

Assessing ongoing health is a major concern for health-care providers, as declining mobility carries a higher risk of falls, with an significant mortality danger for older adults.

The team concludes that how fast you walk is a simple "summary indicator" of overall health and vitality which is easily accessible by nurses, therapists and physicians assessing patients with little more than a stopwatch within a relatively small space. 

Other longevity indicators:   Researchers have been motivated to examine basic physical capability in middle age, to reveal which older adults should be targeted for advice and intervention on activity programs, and balance or flexibility training.

For a look at what your ability to stand on one leg (with your eyes closed), or how fast or easily you can sit down and get back up again tells researchers about your future health, see my article on simple ways to predict your longevity.

Bottom line:  While longevity assessment tools are useful for health-care providers, we can improve our odds of living longer by following some simple daily guidelines: eat a healthy, anti-aging diet (in moderation), stay physically active, reduce stress, and stop smoking.  Staying fit will not only boost your longevity, it will make day to day activities that much easier.  If you need motivation, you can try a low-tech pedometer, or high-tech activity tracker. It may not force you to exercise, but it will log your steps and overall movement, and can be programmed to remind you to get out of your chair or off the couch.


Stephanie Studenski, Subashan Perera, Kushang Patel et al. "Gait Speed and Survival in Older Adults." JAMA 2011;305(1):50-58.

Continue Reading