Middle-aged people who walk slowly age more quickly, according to new research, while fast walkers are physically and mentally younger.
The study, conducted in nearly 1,000 New Zealanders aged 45, found that slow walkers also had older looking faces – independently rated from photos – and smaller, older-looking brains.
People with the slowest gait performed more poorly on a range of physical tests including grip strength, balance, coordination and two-minute step tests and reported more physical limitations in their daily lives.
Rate of aging measures showed they had been growing old five years faster from the age of 26 than those with the fastest walking speed. Slow walkers had other signs of accelerated aging compared to fast walkers such as unhealthier lungs, teeth and immune systems.
Added to that, they had poorer neuropsychological functioning across a range of cognitive assessments including working memory, processing speed, verbal comprehension and perceptual reasoning.
Even more unexpected, the study found that walking speed at 45 years could be predicted by childhood cognitive performance on tests of intelligence, language and motor skills.
Participants, born in the 1970s, had taken part in the longitudinal Dunedin study since the age of three, providing regular tests of physical health and brain function as well as brain scans.
“This study found that a slow walk is a problem sign decades before old age,” Professor Terrie Moffitt told the BBC.
The team said the results were “an amazing surprise”, and the first time walking speed earlier in life has been linked to premature aging.
Doctors often measure walking speed in older adults over 65 as an indicator of general health, as it is linked to muscle strength, lung function, balance, spine strength and vision.
These reflect the importance of mobility for remaining independent and retaining quality of life.
More seriously, slower gait in this age group has also been associated with poorer rehabilitation, greater incidence of diseases – including heart disease and dementia – and shorter life span.
“Doctors know that slow walkers in their 70s and 80s tend to die sooner than fast walkers their same age,” Moffitt told Medical News Today.
A brisk walking pace is generally considered as 100 steps per minute, or around five kilometres per hour – but of course this is relative to people’s fitness levels.
A good guide is to walk faster than you would normally, at a pace that makes you breathe a bit harder and your heart beat faster.
When you get a little sweaty and out of breath, this is considered moderate-intensity activity, which has several known health benefits such as improving balance and coordination, and keeping heart, lungs and circulation healthy.
In turn, this lowers the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease. It could also strengthen bones and muscles and help prevent osteoporosis, although a range of different activities are recommended for optimal benefits.
The key is to find enjoyable walking routes – alone or with a friend, partner or walking group if that’s more motivating – and ways to get active that are fun and enjoyable.
Just pick up the pace up a little.
High intensity interval training, which has established heart health benefits, could also help prevent cognitive decline and dementia in older adults.
A University of Queensland study has found that it may increase blood flow in the brain even more effectively than continuous exercise.
It could therefore help protect against the decreased circulation and blood vessel function that occur inevitably with aging, which increases risk of cognitive decline, heart disease and stroke.
Interval training involves short bouts of intense physical activity alternating with periods of rest – and it appears that both aspects contribute to the benefits.
“One of the key takeaways from the study,” says researcher Tom Bailey, “was that both the exercise and the rest period were important for increasing brain blood flow in older adults.”
The experiment compared young males with an average age of 25 years and older men aged around 69. They cycled continuously for 10 minutes followed by 10 minutes of rest or for one-minute bouts alternated with one minute’s rest.
Continuous exercise improved cerebral blood flow more than interval training in the younger men but not the older adults, in which both activities had a similar impact on brain blood circulation.
The overall blood flow was higher in both groups during the interval training when measuring the entire activity and rest periods, even though perceived exertion was lower than during the continuous cycling.
This is good news for older adults who struggle to maintain non-stop exercise. It’s also encouraging to note that, contrary to previous suggestions, the interval training did not cause spikes in blood pressure.
“The benefits of exercise on brain function are thought to be caused by the increase in blood flow and shear stress, the frictional force of blood along the lining of the arteries, which occurs during exercise,” Bailey explains, suggesting that the interval training may have increased the shear stress and allowed the blood vessels to adapt to interval training.
He adds that this research will help to optimise exercise programs to improve brain function but points out that the study was short term and more research needs to look at longer term outcomes.
Disturbingly low levels of activity around the world have sparked the World Health Organisation to recommend that governments take policy action to get people moving more.
They urge all adults – including people over 65 – to do at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, for at least 10 minutes at a time, a minimum of 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or a combination of both.
Mobility has numerous health benefits and helps older adults retain better health along with greater independence and quality of life. Aerobic exercise should be interspersed with strength training for optimal benefits to help avoid bone and muscle loss.
While Mediterranean regions are fighting it out for top healthy nation ranking, Australia is slipping.
Spain has overtaken Italy as the world’s healthiest country, according to Bloomberg’s 2019 Healthiest Country Index, while Australia has dropped two places to number seven.
Despite Australia’s escalating rates of obesity and heart disease, our nation is still well ahead of the US, which has slipped one place to rank 35.
For the Bloomberg index, countries are ranked on elements such as life expectancy and penalised for tobacco use, obesity and other health risks. Environmental considerations like hygiene and access to clean water are also factored in.
In the US, life expectancy has slipped as a result of premature death from drug overdoses and suicides, while the Mediterranean diet, with well-established health benefits, could help explain Spain’s and Italy’s superior rankings.
A different analysis by LetterOne, the Global Wellness Index, is also searching beyond economic data in their quest to identify a healthy society.
The latter index uses metrics including blood pressure, tobacco and alcohol use, obesity, government healthcare spending, rates of depression, happiness and exercise.
According to their breakdown, Canada ranks as number one out of 151 countries. The US doesn’t fare well on this one either, coming in at number 37, while Australia just scrapes into the top 25 healthiest countries at 23.
Overall, what stands out from both lists is that many smaller nations are outperforming countries considered financially well off, reflecting increased awareness that strong economies do not equate to better health.
Even though Australia is doing moderately well in the overall scheme of things, several facts can’t be ignored. For instance, we endure, on average, 11 years of poor health – topping other OECD countries.
Health equality has a long way to go, with a 10-year gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
More than half of Australia adults have poor health literacy and less than four percent of people consume recommended serves of vegetables and legumes while most Australians don’t follow guidelines for any of the five core food groups.
We are also the second highest meat consumers in the world, eating on average 95 kilograms per person each year (260 grams per day) compared to a world average of 35 kilograms annually.
This is a major concern, given that red meat is classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organisation.
A recent Lancet report by 37 experts worldwide recommends a dramatic reduction in meat consumption – no more than 28 grams per day – and 100 percent increase in legume, nut, fruit and vegetable consumption globally.
The CSIRO recommends that Australians also need to invest resources to support aging, address increased rates of chronic disease and improve equity in health care access.
Modern times have seen a resurgence in paleolithic diets – for better or worse – as people turn to hunter gatherers for lessons on lifestyle and health.
But we haven’t embraced paleo levels of exercise – and researchers suggest we should pay considerably more attention to our ancestors’ physical activity habits.
Historical records estimate that hunter gatherers, whose survival and transport relied on doing everything manually, accrued more than double, and even triple, the number of daily steps of modern US adults.
In fact, most urban people are less active now than ever before in history.
Whether stone age people were healthier remains debatable because they tended to die young. But they were more likely to be killed by wild beasts and falling rocks than the chronic metabolic diseases that plague modern humans.
Non-communicable diseases are the modern world’s biggest health problem, responsible for substantial limitations in daily activities and 70 percent of all deaths in the US.
Advances in technology have resulted in less physically active lifestyles along with increased sedentary behaviour – and these are not necessarily mirror images of each other.
In other words, many of the ways in which inactivity leads to chronic disease are not the same means by which being active can prevent those diseases – these have different mechanisms of action in the body.
So avoiding sedentary behaviours and engaging in physical activity each have their own distinct benefits.
Broadly, nutrition and exercise physiology expert Frank Booth and colleagues define physical inactivity as “physical activity levels less than those required for optimal health and prevention of premature death”.
Booth and co-authors argue that low activity levels are a primary culprit for most chronic diseases. In fact, they present evidence that being active could prevent at least 35 different conditions ranging from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and depression.
Hippocrates is famously quoted as saying that food is medicine. He also recognised the importance of physical activity.
On the whole, our ancestors’ physical activity levels approximate guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.
For older adults aged 65 and above, WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week in bouts of at least 10 minutes – and up to 300 minutes for additional health benefits.
There is a lot of confusion about the paleo diet, and experts point out it is not just one diet: they say there are many different variants.
By and large, paleo diet enthusiasts embrace it as an excuse to eat lots of meat. But Dr Kim Lloyd, CEO of the Paleo Society, told NutritionInsight it’s not a meat-based diet.
“True paleo means eating approximately 75 percent plant-based food, non-starchy vegetables, fruit, seeds and tree nuts with the addition of compassionately reared, free range meat, fish and eggs,” she explained.
Many nutrition experts say the diet’s health benefits are attributed to eating fresh foods and avoiding processed meats and other packaged foods. But they caution against omitting whole food groups like dairy, grains and legumes as suggested by many proponents of the diet.
Combined with regular physical activity, this broad dietary approach – a cornerstone of most traditional diets – is surely a wholesome recipe for longevity and good health.