Our walking style or gait can vary wildly, from pace to the size of the strides we take and even the angle of our feet as they strike the floor. We might give little thought to the way we walk, but how we carry ourselves conveys a depth of information.
A New Zealand-based study published earlier this month in the journal of the American Medical Association found that gait speed was associated with physical and cognitive decline. In other words, walking speed predicted the degree to which participants' bodies and brains were ageing. This longitudinal study, started in the 1970s, found those with slower walking speeds at the age of 45 tended to be experiencing accelerated biological ageing and looked older than their speedier counterparts. They even had smaller brains in terms of volume and cortical thickness. The study also found that those with slower gait speed tended to be those who, as children, had lower IQs. The study’s authors concluded that walking speed in mid-life might be an indicator of accelerated ageing, with its origins in childhood.
Beyond indicating fast ageing, our gait also seems to be associated with specific mental health issues. For example, some people experiencing depression seem to develop a slower walking speed, characterised by shorter strides. In their review article titled Gait and its assessment in psychiatry, psychiatrists Richard Sanders and Paulette Gilling suggested that gait analysis – looking at how people walk – "may be the most important examination in psychiatry outside mental status".
Even outside the clinical context, most of us have probably witnessed – or participated in – stomping in anger or experiencing a spring in our step after receiving good news. The way we walk talks, and it speaks volumes about how we are feeling.
Like many things though, a "normal" gait or walking speed is to some extent influenced by culture and perhaps even climate. Anyone who has travelled will recognise that different places have different paces. The 2006 Pace of Life Study, an exploration of 31 cities worldwide, crowned pedestrians in Singapore the world's fastest walkers. The Singaporeans on average walked nearly 19 metres in 10.55 seconds. The only Gulf cities in the study were Dubai and Manama, ranked 27th and 31st respectively, with the 19m distance covered at a more leisurely 14.64 and 17.69 seconds.
It also turns out that how fast we walk is to some extent influenced by whom we walk with. A study published last year in the PeerJ-Life and Environment compared the walking pace of pedestrians in the US city of Seattle with those in Mukono, a town in Uganda. The study found that when walking in groups, the Ugandans tended to slow down while the Americans generally sped up.
One explanation for the US-Uganda differences is rooted in cultural values. Relatively collectivist societies, of which Uganda is one, tend to emphasise co-operation, sociability and harmony. When moving in groups, a slower walking pace preserves the harmony and sociability of the group: no one gets left behind if we move to the speed of the slowest. In more individualistic societies such as the US, independence, autonomy and competition are more highly prized. Walking in a group in this context might become a bit of a race.
As to which pace is preferable, fast or slow, that depends on our values and intentions. What is straightforward and uncontested, though, are the health benefits associated with regular walking. Whichever authoritative source we consult – the World Health Organisation or the American Medical Association – we get a long list of health benefits: reduced risk of stroke, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Regular walking has even been found to reduce the risk of mood disorders. Some interventions specifically developed to prevent relapse in depression advocate mindful walking. This is a kind of movement-based meditation. The practice involves walking while paying attention to our breathing and the sensations in our bodies as we perform this fairly mundane activity. Giving focus to the breath and the body leaves less time and mind to devote to overthinking.
Whichever way we walk, the activity can be hugely beneficial. Just 30 minutes per day has been found to promote improved health and wellbeing. The Dubai 30 x 30 fitness challenge, which involves half an hour of physical activity per day for 30 days, is currently under way and a great time to initiate or restart a regular walking practice.
Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University