“Mobility is the key to survival: this came up again and again in my research.” -Bill Gifford
The medical field of aging is relatively new. It wasn’t until the last century that we saw an exponential increase in human life expectancy and as a result, we’ve only just started to study aging. And there is still a lot of gray area. One thing we know for sure is that there is huge variability in how we age.
And that there is a big difference between lifespan and healthspan. Thanks to modern medicine, we’ve seen a huge increase in lifespan over the last few decades. But unfortunately, that increase in lifespan doesn’t always accompany an increase in quality of life.
And this is where healthspan comes in. Healthspan is how many healthy years we can add to someone’s life. Because really, what’s the point of adding extra years if you can’t enjoy them?
Much of the findings of studies on aging have been contradictory. So what do we know from these studies so far? Are there any reliable indicators of how we will age that we can turn to? Is aging within our control at all?
The good news is that yes, despite the huge amount of variability there are several controllable factors we can turn to that indicate how we will age. And mobility has been found to be one of the strongest indicators.
We have more and more evidence being published that shows the link between mobility and aging.
So what specifically should we look for in our mobility? What is it that we need to do to age well?
The good news is that all of the research on the benefits of physical activity have found you don’t need to become a marathon runner or powerlifter to age well. If those things interest you, more power to you. But to age well, all you need is to get off the couch. Move and move often.
Below are the skills you need to age well, as evidenced by research.
“… researchers now know that natural walking speed is one of the most accurate predictors of mortality we have.” -Bill Gifford
Walking has been found so critical to survival in medical circles its increasingly being referred to as the “6th vital sign”. Therapists have understood the impact of walking (or lack of) on health for years and other medical providers are starting to catch on.
There is mounting evidence demonstrating the link between walking speed and a host of health conditions. Walking takes more than just physical strength, it also takes a lot of coordination and input from the brain and central nervous system. So reduced walking speed not only indicates a loss of strength but is also an accurate reflection of what is happening in the brain. Walking speed has been found to decline even a decade before dementia or some kind of decline in brain health can be officially diagnosed.
One study even found the number of steps taken by older adults during their hospitalization was strongly correlated with 30-day readmission rates. So the more steps one took in the hospital, the less likely they were to end up hospitalized again in the short term. And better yet, the threshold of steps was only 275 steps per day to make that difference.
So the biggest take away? Walk as often as you can. The more you spread it out throughout the day the better, and the more overground waking you do as opposed to the treadmill the better. Aim for 3–5 miles spread out throughout the day.
Balance has an impact on all of our daily activities as well as our perception of movement. Decreases in balance translate into lower movement confidence, which perpetuates a cycle of further declining strength and balance.
As balance declines, it translates into a wide, shuffling walk. This decreases the efficiency of the walk so it takes more energy to go shorter distances. And again, a vicious cycle of increasing energy expenditure and loss of strength perpetuates.
Even our perception of our balance is so powerful that fear of falling alone can put us at a higher risk of falls. If we perceive your balance as poor, we’re much less likely to get up and perform daily activities. We lose the confidence to leave our homes and interact with the people important in our lives.
Energy and mobility are so important because they hint at other things we can’t see. We slow down because we have more serious problems inside.
So what can you do? Practice your balance daily and make it fun! One of the most common measures used for balance is simple and gives you a way to measure your progress at home. To check out your balance, try standing on one foot without holding on to anything with your hands for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side. You may be able to hold this for 30 seconds, but if you felt wobbly, unsteady, or needed to use your arms to keep your balance you’ve got some work to do.
Daily balance practice can be simple, and again fun. Be playful in your approach and you can’t go wrong.
Your ability to get on and off the floor is a great indicator of your overall strength. And not just if you can do it, but whether or not you can do it without using your hands. In fact, research finds that the inability to get off the floor without using your hands is strongly correlated with early disability and death.
And this one is also simple to practice. Just start swapping out some of your chair sitting time for floor sitting.
Try getting on and off the floor a few times to observe your technique. Is it easy or difficult? Did you need to use your hands? How many different ways can you get off the floor? The more variety here the better.