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Original Article from McMaster Optimal Aging Portal:

In part 1 of this blog series on walking speed we noted that our walking gets slower as we get older. Studies have shown a link between our walking speed, how well we move and how long we live (1;2). In this second part of this series we discuss how to improve your walking speed.

snail on wheels

How does our walking speed change with age?

As we age our walking gets:

  • slower
  • less stable when we walk
  • less efficient
  • the steps we take are less coordinated and
  • the timing is poor (3)
Our posture may not be upright and flexible (4), and together with decreased vision and hearing, this makes it harder for us to respond to our environment when we are walking. However, these changes need not limit you.

How can you improve your walking speed? Strengthen the body structures!

If we notice that we are getting slower in our walking here are some strategies we can use to maintain an efficient walking speed (4;5).

There are TWO approaches to improving your walking speed. The first approach addresses the structural changes we are experiencing in our body as we age. It is important to find ways to improve these structural changes; these body parts are the necessary 'machinery' we need to walk. These structural changes include changes in muscle strength in our legs and in our trunk which we need to stabilize ourselves as we walk (6;7). We also need our joints to be flexible so the muscles can move our limbs efficiently, for example, in the length of the steps we take when we walk (8). Changes we might notice in our body structures could include, being unable to extend your leg behind you in order to step forwards, or difficulty standing on your legs for longer periods (12) or difficulty lifting your foot as you swing your leg forwards.

One recent systematic review found that exercise interventions can improve walking speed and measures of physical function in frail older adults (9). Another systematic review of studies in healthy older adults found that resistance training to strengthen the leg muscles was the most effective way to improve gait speed (10). 

Table 1 below provides a summary of exercises that have been shown to improve body structures for walking more efficiently.

Table 1: Exercises that research has shown to improve your body structures necessary for walking

Target Purpose  Exercise 
Strengthening for leg muscles (10-14) To improve strength of leg muscles used in walking Repeated standing and sitting from a chair

Stand close to a support and practice rising up onto your toes and then back on your heels
Stretching (15) To improve the flexibility of the joints in your leg Standing on the edge of a step with your forefoot supported, support yourself with your arms, depress your heel

Lying on your (left) side raise your right leg and move it backwards as far as you can. Hold and then return it. Repeat on the other side 
General fitness (16;17) To ensure efficient delivery of oxygen to muscles while you walk Cycling on a stationary bike
Marching on the spot

How can you improve your walking speed? Practicing walking to improve the patterning in your brain that controls walking?

The second approach to improving your walking speed involves the training of your brain to walk more efficiently.

We can improve our walking by practicing, which restores the brain pattern used to engage the muscles and nerves to better meet the demands made by walking (18). We also need a basic level of fitness, involving our cardiorespiratory system, to walk efficiently. This means we do not experience breathlessness as we walk and there is efficient delivery of oxygen to the muscles. If walking takes a lot of energy, you will do it less often compared to persons who don't feel tired when they walk. Improvements in walking occur when our brains, muscles, joints and nerves respond more efficiently to meet the demands of walking (19;20). Skilled walkers tend to have an efficient approach to walking and are more likely to walk more and experience less difficulty with moving generally (21).

Two studies which included mostly older adults who either had mild (22) or moderate (23) problems with walking have evaluated this problem. These studies showed that exercise interventions that focused on walking activities resulted in greater improvements in walking speed compared to those that focused on structural issues such as strengthening and flexibility alone.

Table 2 shows the best way to improve your walking efficiency. Our overall walking patterns also can be improved by practice. Practice will increase our walking skill, taking less energy to walk, and making it easier to make responses to our environment while we walk.

Table 2: Exercises to improve walking efficiency

Goal Exercise Modifications
Practice walking Practice walking and consciously monitor your progress

All these tasks make your walking task more challenging, so that you become more skillful at making adjustments to your walking pattern with less effort
Try and increase your speed safely for short distances

Walk forwards and practice changing directions, walking sideways then forwards and backwards stepping

Practice walking carrying objects

Practice walking to counting or music to make your walking consistently rhythmical

Walk circular paths, clockwise and counterclockwise or pathways following figures of eight
Practice stepping over objects as you walk Disturbing your walking pattern and adjusting your balance

Your walking speed is good practice for unexpected disturbances when walking
Place several objects at distances across the floor of a room, then practice walking and stepping over the objects; note changes that occur as you step over the object and then start walking again 

Bottom line about improving your walking speed

Research shows that our walking speed is an important indicator of our health. In this blog we have identified two approaches that research shows can improve your walking speed. We need to strengthen our body structures used in walking. We also need to practice walking while doing different activities, which improves the control the brain has on our walking and makes our walking more efficient. There is scientific evidence that improvements in gait speed over 1 year were associated with improved survival 8 years later (2).

It is not known whether these exercise regimes to increase walking speed prevent us having problems with moving as we age or increase our life expectancy. You can continue to measure your walking speed from time to time with the instructions from part 1 of this blog series on walking speed.

In this two-part series of blog posts on walking speed we look at what you need to know and how to improve your walking speed. In Part 1, we look at some of the basics and a simple test you can do to determine your walking speed. In Part 2, we discuss how to improve your walking speed.

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