From Sin­ga­pore to Dubai, the way we walk talks

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - JUSTIN THOMAS Justin Thomas is a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Zayed Univer­sity

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.

Our gait can be the out­come of our cul­ture and cli­mate – but it can also be as­so­ci­ated with men­tal health is­sues

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.


Pedes­tri­ans in Sin­ga­pore are the world’s fastest walk­ers

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