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The Need for Speed: Why walking speed is considered to some as the functional vital sign

By David Tokatliyan

Through my studies and short career as a Physiotherapist, I have always been told that outcome measures are pivotal throughout care. They are utilised to assess the impact of any intervention provided by a therapist.

One outcome measure that often flies under the radar is walking speed. A test so simple as getting someone to walk in a straight line for 10 metres can be crucial in indicating overall health and can provide valuable insight into an individual’s wellbeing. But what is it that has walking speed labelled by some clinicians as the functional vital sign (Middleton et al., 2015)? And why should clinicians prioritise improving walking speed when delivering our care to the elderly population?

Muscular Strength and Balance

Maintaining a steady walking speed requires both adequate muscle activation in the legs as well as good balance. As the body grows older, our bodies can become more frail and muscle mass can decline, possibly leading to slower walking speed and an increased risk of falling (Middleton et al., 2015). Ainsworth et al., found that those who ambulate at a speed less than 0.4 metres per second often have functional impairments and a severe walking disability (Ainsworth et al., 2011). On the other hand, those who walk with a speed of more than 1.3 metres per second are classified as being extremely fit (Ainsworth et al., 2011). By working on our walking speed we can enhance our muscular strength and balance, reducing the likelihood of falls and injury.

Cardiovascular Health

A brisk walking pace indicates good cardiovascular health (Alves et al., 2017). A study from the Journal of the American Medical Association discovered that a slower walking speed in older adults was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease (Studenski et al., 2011). So there’s no excuse to walk quicker to get the heart pumping! This will improve circulation and reduce the risk of developing nasty health related issues like heart disease and strokes.

Cognitive Health

Did you know there could be a connection between walking speed and your cognitive health? A neurology study found that slower walking speed was associated with cognitive decline in older adults (Hackett et al., 2018). Walking with pace engages the brain and may help slow down some cognitive deterioration.

Overall Fitness

Walking is a low-impact, easily accessible exercise that almost all of us can do. You don’t need any special equipment or facility to do it in, which makes it great for older adults to do. By walking, seniors can improve their overall fitness levels, which can benefit their health.

Now that you’ve heard why increasing your walking speed is awesome for both you and your body, here are some tips to consider when walking:

1. Warm Up: Before walking, warm up with some gentle stretches to reduce the risk of muscular strains.

2. Appropriate Footwear: Invest in some comfortable and supportive shoes that give you good traction.

3. Maintain your posture: Stand tall! Engage your tummy muscles and swing your arms to keep your balance and increase your speed.

4. Gradual Progression: Start off with some slower walks and as you get more comfortable increase your pace and distance as you like.

5. Consistency: Aim for at least 120 minutes of moderate-intensity walking per week

Walking speed is far from a useless metric, and I hope you now know how powerful of an indicator it can be for health and wellbeing in the aging population. By understanding your walking speed and how to improve it, you can improve your cardiovascular health, muscular strength and balance, cognitive function and overall fitness (Middleton et al., 2015).

I hope to see you out and about now, striding towards good health. Every step counts!


Ainsworth, B. E., Haskell, W. L., Herrmann, S. D., Meckes, N., Bassett Jr, D. R., Tudor-Locke, C., … & Leon, A. S. (2011). 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities: a second update of codes and MET values. Medicine & science in sports & exercise43(8), 1575-1581.

Alves, D. J. F., Bartholomeu-Neto, J., Júnior, E. R., Zarricueta, B. S. R., Nobrega, O. T., & Cordova, C. (2017). Walking speed, risk factors, and cardiovascular events in older adults—Systematic review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research31(11), 3235-3244.

Hackett, R. A., Davies‐Kershaw, H., Cadar, D., Orrell, M., & Steptoe, A. (2018). Walking speed, cognitive function, and dementia risk in the English longitudinal study of ageing. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society66(9), 1670-1675.Middleton, A., Fritz, S. L., & Lusardi, M. (2015). Walking speed: the functional vital sign. Journal of aging and physical activity23(2), 314-322.

Studenski, S., Perera, S., Patel, K., Rosano, C., Faulkner, K., Inzitari, M., … & Guralnik, J. (2011). Gait speed and survival in older adults. Jama305(1), 50-58.

About the author

Meet David, an early career Physiotherapist at KEO. David graduated in 2022 and jumped straight into our Aged Care team. He enjoys creating meaningful connections and provides holistic care to all of his clients.

As an early career professional, he utilises recent evidence-based approaches in his everyday practice. His main area of interest is musculoskeletal Physiotherapy. David loves his work in the Aged Care community and aims to empower every individual he works with to the best of his ability.