Walking Speed: A Vital Sign for Older Adults

By Dr. Tonya Miller, PT DPT
Regional Director, Celtic Healthcare

There are many vital signs to indicate how your body is performing. Physicians and other health care professionals track blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate to monitor a person’s overall health – but did you know that your walking speed can be an important vital sign used to predict your overall health, well-being and ability to stay independent as you age? Walking speed or “gait velocity” is measured by timing an individual as he or she walks an established distance – usually 10 meters.

Although walking may seem like the simplest of tasks, it is actually a complex symphony involving many of the body’s systems. In order to walk, our bodies must coordinate balance, muscle contraction and relaxation, as well as adjust the cardiovascular system. As one can imagine, a simple change in any of these systems could cause a change in someone’s ability to walk, thus reducing walking speed. This is the reason that walking speed is now considered a “vital sign.”

Research has shown that the normal walking speed of an older adult (over age 65) is 1.2 to 1.4 meters per second (1.8-2.7 mph). There has also been significant research demonstrating that as walking speed decreases from the normal range, an individual becomes less likely to be able to stay at home safely and may be at a greater risk for injuries and other medical complications including possible increased risk of death.   The good news – research indicates that improvement in walking speed is linked to a reduction in medical complications and also an improved ability to stay independent. One study in particular indicated that individuals who improved their walking speed had a 20% less chance of medical decline than those who displayed a decrease in their walking speed. This same study also showed that over an eight year period, individuals with improved walking speed had a 10% less likelihood of medical decline compared to those whose speed remained the same. So, just by improving the speed at which you walk, you can have a positive effect on your overall health.

Older adults who have difficulty walking when out in the community may benefit from the assistance of a home health physical therapist. Celtic Healthcare’s physical therapists work with older adults in their own homes to evaluate their walking speed and overall function and safety. After a comprehensive evaluation, our therapists then develop safe and effective programs to improve the walking speed, functional activities and overall health status of an individual.  By partnering with physical therapists to develop medically appropriate programs, older adults can improve their walking speed – a vital component to healthy aging.

For more information about home health physical therapy and Celtic Healthcare’s programs please contact Celtic Healthcare by calling Ryan Vasconcellos at 301-956-5861.

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