What Walking Speed Says About Physical and Mental Aging

If your stride is on the slow side, you may be more at risk of accelerated aging and the health issues that come with it.

If your stride has slowed down in your 40s, you may be aging faster than you realize. 

One study published in 2019 in JAMA Network Open found that your walking speed at age 45 can indicate the speed of your physical and neurological aging. The researchers examined nearly one thousand 45-year-olds to understand what walking speed revealed about their aging.

"How fast people are walking in midlife tells us a lot about how much their bodies and brains have aged over time," Line Jee Hartmann Rasmussen, PhD, the lead author and senior researcher at Copenhagen University Hospital Hvidovre in Denmark, told Health

Gait speed seems to be not only an indicator of aging but also an indicator of lifelong brain health. Another study published in 2022 in JAMA Network Open found that slowing walking speed and slowing memory in adults older than 65 increased the risk of dementia.

Here's what you should know about what your walking speed may reveal about your physical and mental aging and how to calculate your walking speed.

How Walking Speed Impacts Physical and Mental Aging

In the 2019 study, researchers examined more than 40 years of data collected from over 1,000 New Zealanders born between 1972 and 1973.

A pediatric neurologist assessed each participant, starting at age 3. The pediatric neurologist measured everything from intelligence, language, and motor skills to emotional and behavioral regulation. After that, the researchers regularly assessed each participant's health, examined them, and interviewed them every few years.

At the age of 45, the researchers measured the walking speed of 904 participants using a test. The researchers also looked at how quickly the participants were aging based on 19 health markers, including body mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol level. Additionally, the researchers conducted the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-IV test, did brain MRIs, and rated facial aging.

After analyzing the data, the researchers compared the participants with slow gaits (about 3.9 feet per second) to people with fast gaits (about 5.7 feet per second).

Based on those results, here are the conclusions about the effects of walking speed on physical and mental aging the researchers drew.

Physical Aging

First, the researchers associated slow gait with "poor physical function at midlife." Although most middle-aged adults walked faster than older adults who were part of earlier studies, the researchers made the same associations between walking speed and physical performance.

Second, the researchers determined that slow walking accelerated aging. Rapid deterioration of organ systems demonstrated that point. Also, the facial aging and structural brain changes data showed that those with a slow gait physically aged faster than others.

Mental Aging

The researchers also connected slow gait and worsening neurocognitive functioning. For example, those who walked faster had a reduced risk of dementia. Also, participants whose neurocognitive functioning was lower at age 3 subsequently had slow gaits in their 40s.

Can Improved Walking Speed Slow Physical and Mental Aging?

The researchers did not comment on improving physical fitness to reverse physical and mental aging. But improving your cardiovascular fitness and diet during your 20s and 30s supports your long-term health, Carolyn Fredericks, MD, a neurologist specializing in Alzheimer's disease at Yale Medicine (who was not involved in the 2019 study), told Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly, with two days of muscle-strengthening activities. In general, staying physically active has several benefits, like:

  • Boosts energy, which prevents fatigue
  • Improves your balance
  • Reduces your risk of certain health conditions, like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers
  • Helps you get a restful night's sleep
  • Decreases stress and anxiety
  • Helps manage a healthy body weight
  • Improves cognitive functioning
  • Keeps your blood pressure stable

"Walking seems like such a simple thing," said Rasmussen. "But walking requires the function and interplay of many different organ systems at the same time, including your bones, heart, lungs, muscles, vision, nervous systems, and so on." Therefore, slow walking speeds may signify advanced aging and deteriorating organ function.

"Keeping healthy and exercising your lungs, brain, and heart may improve your physical and cognitive health and thus your gait speed," added Rasmussen.

While measuring gait is a common practice with older adults, the research suggests testing your walking speed early in life may be beneficial. 

How To Measure Your Walking Speed

You don't need an expert to calculate how many feet per second you can walk. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers used the following calculation to measure walking speed:

  • Choose how many feet you are going to walk. The 2011 study opted for six meters, which is about 20 feet. Get a measuring tape and mark the distance with tape or a piece of chalk.
  • Use a stopwatch to figure out how many seconds it takes to walk the distance without exerting yourself. Make sure to walk at your regular pace.
  • Divide the total distance walked by the amount of time (in seconds) on your stopwatch. For example, if it took you five seconds to walk 20 feet, you would divide 20 feet by five seconds. That equals four feet per second.
  • For an accurate read, repeat the process a few times.

For comparison, people in the 2019 study averaged 4.2 to 6.2 feet per second in their 40s.

A Quick Review

According to a 2019 study, there's an association between your walking speed and your physical and mental aging. The researchers did not clarify whether getting more active later in life can slow or reverse physical and mental aging. But getting active and checking your walking speed are two ways to improve your overall health.

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  1. Rasmussen LJH, Caspi A, Ambler A, et al. Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Function With Gait Speed in MidlifeJAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(10):e1913123. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.13123

  2. Collyer TA, Murray AM, Woods RL, et al. Association of Dual Decline in Cognition and Gait Speed With Risk of Dementia in Older Adults [published correction appears in JAMA Netw Open. 2022 Jun 1;5(6):e2222274]. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(5):e2214647. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.14647

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need?.

  4. National Institute on Aging. Real-life benefits of exercise and physical activity.

  5. Studenski S, Perera S, Patel K, et al. Gait speed and survival in older adultsJAMA. 2011;305(1):50-58. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.1923

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