Walking is functional activity that many of us do, whether it be leisurely or around the house. The way we walk, our gait, is very important in keeping our bodies mobile and strong. Gait speed, or how fast someone walks, can also be a way of predicting survival rates. Studies show that the speed of someone’s walking is linked to “dependence, hospitalization, rehabilitation needs, discharge locations, and ambulation category.” (Fritz, Lusardi) Many variables can contribute to walking speed such as weight or BMI, smoking, use of assistive devices like canes and walkers, arthritis, and other systemic diseases. Walking requires energy. If someone’s gait speed starts to reduce, this may indicate a dysfunction in one of our bodies systems. Body systems include our musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, nervous, circulatory, and lymphatic systems.
How Do You Measure Walking Speed?
Physical therapists can easily measure gait speed within their clinic. A common test used is the 10 Meter Walk Test. This includes a 20-meter walkway with a 5-meter acceleration zone at the start, a 10 meter “timed section”, and then a 5-meter deceleration zone. The therapist uses a stopwatch and will start it when the patient crosses the first line and stops it when the client crosses the second line. It is best to do these 3 times and average the score to get the most accurate time. (Fritz, Lusardi) The average gait speed can then be used to compare improvement or decline at certain times such as after a surgery, after rehabilitation, and throughout the years.
What the Studies Show About Walking Speed
A recent study showed that a change of 0.05 m/s was needed to show a small but meaningful improvement. Also, the study showed that with patients who do not have a normal walking speed to start, an improvement of 0.1 m/s was a useful predictor of well-being. Conversely, a walking speed decrease of 0.1 m/s was linked to poorer health status as well as more disability, longer hospital stays, and increased medical costs (Perera, Yazan).
Measuring gait speed is a simple and easy way that physical therapists can use to measure improvement or decline in someone’s functional abilities. As specialists in “movement and function”, physical therapists can use walking speed as a practical and informative functional “sixth vital sign”.
Written by the Aquacare Millsboro Staff
Stacy Fritz, PT, PhD;1 Michelle Lusardi, PT, PhD2, White Paper: “Walking Speed: The Sixth Vital Sign”, Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy Vol. 32;2:09
Subashan Perera PhD, Yazan F. Roumani MS, MBA, Julie M Chandler PhD, Stephanie A. Studenski MD, MPH, “Improvement in Usual Gait Speed Predicts Better Survival in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society Vol. 55;11:1727-1734