As we get older, the speed with which we walk and react to physical challenges tends to become slower. This occurs regardless of other health challenges we might be dealing with; in fact, even the healthiest older adults tend to walk 20% slower than younger adults (Comana, 2012.) The mechanics and muscles involved in the activity of walking are complex; the reasons why we may be walking slower can be due to a variety of changes to our gait cycle. The gait cycle is the time in between the first contact of heel of one foot with the ground and the next heel to ground contact with the same foot. Some of the factors involved in the slowing of this cycle are listed below. The good news is that there is much you can do to address gait cycle changes and to increase your walking speed! Here are five bodily changes that could be affecting your walking speed and some simple exercises to address them:1. Strength and Power Losses
As we age, we naturally lose muscle. The muscle fibers responsible for powerful, fast movements show the most change, and losses to our lower body muscular power affect our balance and stability in walking. The muscles around the ankle joint stabilize us when we walk, and lower body muscle power is an important factor in preventing falls. Therefore, people with particularly weak muscles around the knees and ankles will see the most changes to their gaits.Practice Exercise:
Chair stand - Begin by sitting in the middle of a chair, feet flat on the floor and arms across the chest. Rise to a full stand, then return to a fully seated position. (Discontinue this exercise if it causes you pain in the knees, and consult an exercise or rehabilitation professional.)2. Shorter Stride Length
A shortened stride length is a common occurrence with increased age, along with a reduced arm swing and more rotation in the hips, knees, and ankles when walking. This means that we end up taking more steps to cover the same distance than we did when we were younger.Practice Exercise:
Stride Lengthening - safely and slowly practice lengthening your stride for a minute or two when walking by taking longer strides (slowly) and swinging your arms in a longer range-of-motion than you are used to3. Motion Economy
Due to age-related muscle changes, we end up using more muscular endurance instead of power when walking. A slower walking pace means we don't have to propel forward as quickly and thus maximizes our motion economy. The energy cost of walking is less than if we were propelling forward more quickly.
Speed Bursts - When going for a walk, try performing short bursts of speed, either on flat terrain or on a gentle incline. Keep the bursts short and fast (as long as you are balanced well.)4. Limited Movement in the Ankles and Knees
In addition to often having less stable knee and ankle joints due to muscular weakness, older adults also tend to have less flexibility around both joints.Practice Exercise:
Heel and Toe Rocks - to increase the range-of-motion around the ankle joints, try rocking back on your heels and then up on your toes. If you feel that you will lose balance, make sure to hold on to a wall or heavy chair for support.5. Balance Losses
Older adults tend to be more worried about falling than they were when younger, and thus will often slow their walking in order to have time to react to changes in their environment (such as surface changes and external objects) and thus avoid falling. Older adults also tend to walk with a flatter foot pattern, and use different strategies to step over objects than younger people. These stepping strategies mean older people are more likely to maneuver objects in a way which can cause the heel of the foot to contact an object when stepping over it, and in fact make them more likely to fall rather than having the opposite effect.Practice Exercise:
Hurdles - Try safely stepping over an object, starting with approximately 2-4 inches of height. You can step over and back, and over and back again, making sure that you are lifting your feet as high as possible and not letting your feet make contact with the object you are using as a hurdle. Challenge yourself, but do not put yourself at risk. Make sure there is a rescue surface nearby or that you can touch a wall as you go over your hurdle.References:
Comana, F. (2012). Mobility, Gait and Balance; Bryant, C. and Daniel Green, Eds. ACE Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist Manual. San Diego: American Council on Exercise.
Merrill, S. (2012). Older Adults; Bryant, C. and Daniel Green, Eds. ACE Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist Manual. San Diego: American Council on Exercise.