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Studies Show That Walking Speed And Improving It Can Increase Longevity

January 10, 2011

A lot of attention was paid to the results of a study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week comparing walking speed to survival rates in older people. The study was actually a review of nine other studies conducted between 1986 and 2000 and representing nearly 34,500 participants. The researchers demonstrated that the better your walking, or gait, speed, the better your survival rate. Measuring gait speed at a doctor’s visit may help create a more exact picture of your health. Current methods for predicting life expectancy based only on age and sex don’t tell your whole story, explain the researchers—overall health and how well you function should count as well and help determine the health care interventions needed for each individual.

This and other studies give scientific context to many of the strategies that fitness experts have been recommending for years and advice available from leading health organizations like the American Heart Association: Exercise improves health, balance and your ability to do further exercise—and the more you move, the healthier you tend to be. And, of course, the faster and more safely you can walk.

Another recent study, unrelated to the one released last week, looked at the real heart of the matter: How to improve gait and balance in the context of reducing the risk for falling—a practical application of the need for better speed. Released right before Thanksgiving, it perhaps didn’t get enough attention.

Researchers, led by Andrea Trombetti, MD, of University Hospitals and Faculty of Medicine of Geneva, Switzerland, looked at the effects of a music-based exercise regimen on people living in a senior community to see if the music would help participants better perform the exercises—much like ballet students practice according to the beats and rhythms of selected pieces.

The yearlong study included 134 adults over 65 (the average age was 75.5) and at an increased risk of falling. Half participated for the first six months and the other half for the second six-month period during which time adults in the first group returned to their normal exercise activities. The music-based multitask exercise program was given for one hour per week by an instructor and included a wide-range of movements that challenged the body's balance control system. Exercises included walking in time to the piano music and responding to changes in the music's rhythm.

The researchers found that exercising with the music based program led to better balance and functioning and each group that participated experienced less falls—in fact less the rate of falls was cut by more than half. They also noted that the first group still showed improvement six months after they stopped.

Dance-based studies, like those conducted by our fall prevention expert Dr. Jean Krampe, further demonstrate the benefits of combining music and movement in exercise classes for older Americans. Working in group settings not only offers physical benefits, but also the social benefits of interaction, especially helpful at a time in life when people are at risk for isolation and the negative mental health issues that can led to.