We often think of vital signs like measurements of blood pressure, pulse rate, cholesterol levels, or blood sugar as indicators of overall health, but those are not the only ways to gauge a person’s overall health. What people may not be aware of is that walking speed, or gait, is a useful metric for evaluating current health and predicting future health outcomes.
Walking speed has been coined as the sixth vital sign, as it can be used to gauge a patient’s function, illness, degree of dependence, and ability to perform the necessary activities of daily living, such as bathing, eating, and getting in and out of bed or chairs. It can also be used to target specific areas of concern in treatments, as well as anticipate future medical needs.
Normal walking speed involves primarily the use of the lower extremities, with the arms and the core muscles providing stability and balance. Walking at faster speeds will enlist more help from the upper extremities and the core, to provide extra propulsion, balance, and stability.
Safe walking requires high functioning cognition and executive control. Since walking is more or less an automatic process for most people, we fail to realize that every step we take is in fact a complicated balancing act, with our body weight shifting from side to side, and the brain processing information in real time to allow for movement over all different types of terrain. Because of the use of so many of our body systems, gait speed is an excellent marker of general health