Vital signs measure the body’s basic functions and include temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and oxygen saturation. Would it surprise you to learn that there might be a “sixth” vital sign? Imagine if how we walk can be analyzed to indicate our health. One example is gait analysis to help identify the source of muscle, nerve, or skeletal problems. Per Tech Explorist, Kamiar Aminian, Head of Laboratory of Movement Analysis and Measurement, shares “It has been proven that older adults who walk more slowly than one meter per second have more health problems on average. Conversely, people who have a good gait speed show greater cognitive function, develop fewer illnesses, suffer fewer falls and spend less time in the hospital. Scientists have even established a direct link between gait and lifespan.” Researchers are anxious to learn more.
Walking is something that most adults take for granted or do not think deeply about. It’s simply something we automatically do. The activity takes us from one point to another and gives us independence to move freely. But when you get down to it, walking is a complex task orchestrated by the nervous system. And it requires the use of hundreds of muscles, bones, and joints. Walking movements are produced through a delicate balance and coordination of muscles which propels the body forward into a special rhythm or stride. Though walking styles can be similar, each person’s gait, or pattern of walking, is unique. Now scientists and doctors are taking a closer look at gait for use as a diagnostic tool for medical conditions. Per WebMD, a leading source of medical information, “Your gait, posture, and pace may also broadcast clues about your health or personality.”
Many interesting things can be learned from how people walk. In one example, WebMD explains that studies on people over 65 show that a natural need for speed when walking tends to mean you’ll live longer. However, speeding up one’s pace will not increase lifespan. In another example, we learn that people who veer more to the left tend to be tense or worried as opposed to people who go right, per blind-fold testing. Thus, a mind-body connection exists. Scientists believe that changes in the way people walk, such as in one’s speed or gait, might someday lead to a way to predict the onset of conditions such as Alzheimer’s or indicate other memory problems.
The hope is that if more attention is given to how we walk, physical problems can be identified or pain can be avoided. There are some obvious reasons a person may change the way they walk. For example, one might break a bone or hurt a muscle. Or illness may cause someone to develop a gait disorder. Or normal aging may slow mobility. However, gait issues can happen to anyone at any age and for a multitude of reasons. It is thought that even subtle changes might be indicators of potential medical problems. Gait disorders are divided into different categories. Per Colorado Pain Care, propulsive gait involves a patient with a stooped, rigid posture with steps that are faster and shorter. This gait is pervasive among people with Parkinson’s disease. However, a steppage gait, typified by a high leg lift with a floppy foot, is common among stroke victims. Gait provides clues about what’s happening in the body. Once aware of gait issues, corrective measures may be taken to ensure safety.
With the advent of iPhones, people can better monitor their walking conditions and gain access to a plethora of data related to walking through the health app. This includes number of steps walked, number of flights climbed, walking distances, step length, walking speed, double support time, asymmetry, and more. Walking asymmetry relates to timing of steps. It is the percent of time that your steps with one foot are faster or slower than the other foot. The app explains that in a healthy walking pattern, the timing of the steps you take with each foot is very similar. This means the lower the percentage of asymmetry, the healthier your walking pattern. Double support time measures the percentage of time during a walk that both feet are on the ground. A lower value means you spend more of your time walking with weight on one foot, instead of two, which is a sign of better balance. The app states that during a typical walk, this measure will fall between 20 to 40%. Double support time varies with speed and terrain but may increase with age. Walking data is generally automatically recorded on the iPhone when carried near the waist.
The science of walking is complex. However, the way we walk speaks volumes to our health. Uneven walking patterns, such as limping, can be a sign of disease, injury, or other health issues. Whereas an even or symmetrical walk is considered a sign of wellness. Thus, symmetrical walking is a health goal of physical therapy, particularly for those recovering from injury. For seniors, changes in gait can be an indicator of increased fall risk, so the development of accurate testing can likely prevent potential injuries. From a health perspective, it’s beneficial to evaluate the way people walk. Typically, gait analysis is performed through simple observation. However, medical science is continually pushing boundaries by seeking to incorporate advanced technology for the evaluation of gait abnormalities for better health.
This article is purely informational and is not intended as medical advice or as a medical resource.