As the senior in your life approaches a certain age, the rigors of daily life can cause them a lot of pain. They may struggle with their mobility, too, and begin relying more on a walker or wheelchair to get around. But, if they still can do so, you should encourage them to walk.
You might be wondering why is walking good for older adults? Walking has plenty of health benefits, including:
- More positive feelings
- Better social life
- May reduce depression and anxiety
- May help chronic pain
- Boosts stamina and energy
- Controls blood sugar more effectively
- Helps joint flexibility
- Improves coordination and balance
- Helps bone and muscle health
- Maintains weight
- Increases confidence
- Leads to a healthier heart
As you can see, it’s advantageous for a senior to get into a regular walking schedule.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into the perks of walking for older adults. We’ll also help you set up a realistic walking schedule and tell you how many steps to expect based on the senior’s age.
General Health Benefits Of Walking
If you want to stay healthy and mobile well into old age, start walking today—even if you’ve already edged into “old age. – Howard LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
In a study that was published on the Jama NetWork, the authors concluded that, “A structured moderate-intensity physical activity program compared with a health education program reduced major mobility disability over 2.6 years among older adults at risk of disability.” The Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) study was a multicenter, single-blind, parallel randomized trial conducted at 8 centers across the United States and focused on preventing disability issues in older adults. Researchers followed sedentary women and men in their 70s and 80s who were at high risk of a mobility disability.
At the start of the study, these seniors could not walk more than 400 meters (about 1300 feet or 4.33 football fields) in a 15 minute period without having to sit or lean on something – or they had to use a walker or get someone’s help to walk that far. For the study, these seniors were either assigned to a physical activity group or a health education program group.
The goal of the physical activity group was to be able to walk for 30 minutes every day, at moderate intensity, by the end of the study.
The goal of the health education program group was to attend twice-weekly sessions on health topics. There were no physical activity topics given, however the group did do light stretching for 5 – 10 minutes at each session.
During the study and the 2.6 year follow up period after the study, the physical activity group was able to maintain a more than 40 minute per week activity level over the health education group, which lost 25 minutes of weekly activity in the same time period. In other words, once a senior begins a walking program, they tend to stick with it – even if they were sedentary to begin with.
“The physical activity intervention compared with the health education intervention significantly reduced major mobility disability (HR, 0.82; P = .03), persistent mobility disability (HR, 0.72; P = .006), and the combined outcome of major mobility disability or death (HR, 0.82; P = .02).
Dr. LeWine says, “Some older people may have the impression that they have passed the age at which starting an exercise program will do them any good. According to the LIFE results, taking up exercise at any age offers benefits down the road.”
In fact, walking benefits so many areas of a senior’s life that we’re breaking the list of pluses things into categories to list the activity’s physical, social, and mental perks.
Physical Benefits Of Walking
The act of waking is a physical one that promises many physical benefits in return. Here’s an overview:
- Less chronic pain: A 2017 study in the Cochrane Database System Review mentioned that physical activity like walking or other light exercise can have an effect on the pain caused from chronic conditions. These can include patellofemoral pain, post-polio syndrome, spinal cord injuries, mechanical neck disorders, dysmenorrhea, intermittent claudication, lower back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and arthritis.
- More stamina and energy: The less your senior does, the more drained of their energy they can feel. Through walking, it’s possible to build their stamina back up. In turn, they should feel more energetic.
- Manageable blood sugar: WebMD notes that during walking and other exercise, we increase how hard we breathe and how much our hearts work. In doing this, our blood sugar or glucose stores are reduced as our heart needs it more. The more a senior walks then, the more they can lower high blood sugar. In a study by Swartz et al, it was found that, “active older adults, defined by having steps/day above the median value of 4,227 steps/day, had lower blood pressure and fasting glucose.
- Greater joint flexibility: This is just like building stamina. Although it’s not always easy to get started, a older adult can reduce their stiff and painful joints to a degree if they get into a walking routine.
- More coordination and balance: They may also find their coordination and balance both improve. This is especially good, as the senior is at less risk of falling.
- Improved bone and muscle health: According to American Bone Health, walking could preserve the strength of a person’s bones. Besides that, bone density may lessen more slowly compared to non-walkers.
- Healthier weight: As the senior works up a sweat when they walk, they torch calories. This controls their weight without the need for strenuous exercise.
- Better heart health: Every older adult wants to take care of their heart, and with walking, they can. These frequent walkers may have a lower risk of vascular inflammation and stiffness, obesity, diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Most of these factors can contribute to a healthier heart.
Social Benefits Of Walking
Besides the myriad of physical perks, walking can also bring with it social benefits. Here’s more on those.
- A more expansive social life: No longer is the senior relegated to seeing pals around their assisted living facility or their neighbors on the block. They can leave the house and walk with friends or even walk to someone’s house to meet up with them. This grows their social circle.
- Very inexpensive to start and maintain: Even seniors with a limited budget can enjoy regular walking. They only need a sturdy pair of walking shoes and that’s it. They’re good to go. After all, walking is free. Oh, and it’s good for our environment, too, since the senior is not driving and contributing further to their carbon footprint.
- Walking can be a social activity if the senior joins a walking group. Get more ideas in our article, How Do You Engage The Elderly In Social Activities?
Mental Benefits Of Walking
A senior can tend to their mental health as well by getting outside and walking.
- Less depression and anxiety: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says walking may boost cognitive function, concentration, and alertness while lessening fatigue and stress. Within five minutes, a senior can experience the anxiety-reducing benefits of walking. Further, the ADAA says aerobic exercise like walking can better one’s self-esteem, sleep, and mood.
- More self-confidence: Seniors often feel like their independence has been taken from them as they begin getting older. By regaining their freedom to travel through walking, they will have more confidence in themselves.
- Higher quality of life: Exercise releases endorphins, feel-good chemicals that will make the senior want to keep up with the activity. Their quality of life will go up.
In fact, one Australian study (published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2017) found that, “physical exercise improved cognitive function in the over 50s, regardless of the cognitive status of participants.”
The researchers noted that, “It is hypothesised that the neural and vascular adaptations to physical exercise improve cognitive function through promotion of neurogenesis, angiogenesis, synaptic plasticity, decreased proinflammatory processes and reduced cellular damage due to oxidative stress. While lifelong participation in physical exercise may be preferable, the adoption of exercise at any age to delay or reverse cognitive decline is worthwhile given the prevalence of physical inactivity and the increasing proportion of older adults in the population.”
How Many Steps Should An 80 Year Old Walk In A Day? (Recommended Walking Distance For Seniors)
If you or the older adult you care for is in their 80s, you might not feel as comfortable with them walking here, there, and everywhere. It’s okay to let them roam free, though. This study from the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity said that adults 69 and older who exercise often could take 3,400 steps over the course of a 30-minute walk. Per minute, that’s 113 steps.
The study goes on to mention that seniors between 65 and 80 years old could maintain an impressive number of steps per minute. For women, it was between 96 and 136. For men, they walked 85 to 125 steps a minute.
As for seniors (defined as age 65-plus) who may be living with disabilities or chronic illnesses, a study by Tudor-Locke et al says, “Recognizing that the most sedentary older adults and individuals living with disability and chronic illness may be more limited in their everyday activities, but could still benefit from a physically active lifestyle, a similarly computed translation approximates 5,500 daily steps or 4,600 steps/day if averaged over a week of free-living behaviour. Direct evidence (measured objectively by accelerometer) suggests a somewhat higher range (6,500- 8,500 steps/day), however, it is important to remember that this is based on a single study of patients in a cardiac rehabilitation program.”
Normal Walking Speed By Age (Walking Speed for Seniors)
Seniors can expect to walk quite a lot of steps during a daily stroll if they’re in good enough health. How fast will they travel as they do it? Here’s a breakdown of how walking speed may change from one decade to another.
- 60s: As an adult enters their 60s, they can walk at 2.77 to 3.0 miles per hour, which is 1.24 to 1.34 meters per second.
- 70s: In their 70s, a senior’s walking speed will drop a bit from their 60s. Now, they will travel at an average rate of 2.53 to 2.82 miles per hour or 1.13 to 1.26 meters per second.
- 80s: The decrease in walking speed from a senior in their 70s to their 80s is quite steep. They slow down to a speed of 2.10 to 2.17 miles per hour, which is 0.94 to 0.97 meters per second.
Compare the above speeds to an adult in their 20s, as their walking speed is 3.0 to 3.04 miles per hour and 1.34 to 1.36 meters per second. A senior in their 60s can still walk pretty fast!
Walking Vs. Running For Seniors
As this article has illustrated, seniors can certainly enjoy a lot of benefits through regular walking. But, what if they were to take up running? Wouldn’t they accelerate the rate of the above mentioned perks?
Yes and no. This Healthline article notes that once adults reach 40 years old, they start exercising less. It is possible, however, to lessen the chances of an early death (by up to 15 percent!) through spending 10 daily minutes exercising.
The Healthline article advocates for brisk walking for seniors through their 60s. To count as a brisk walk, the senior should take 100 steps each minute. If you or your senior loved one can handle brisk walking, then they could graduate to jogging or even running – if they’re in good enough health.
That said, the older adult is at a higher risk of stress fractures (a type of bone breakage), shin splints, Achilles tendonitis, and runner’s knee if they’re a frequent runner. You or a medical caretaker should stay on alert for symptoms of these injuries.
Walking Tips For Seniors
If you have ever tried to get healthier, you know that starting an exercise program can be a challenge no matter what stage of life you are in. Seniors who are sedentary will want to start slow and begin exercising for just 10 minutes a day. Hey, at least they’re moving!
They should gradually work their way up to:
- Getting about 150 minutes of exercise per week. This can be through walking or another moderate intensity exercise (or you can combine both, for variety).
- Do some type of resistance training two or three times per week. Use weights or machines – but don’t do this two days in a row because the body needs time in between to build up the muscles.
- Stretch and do other activities that improve flexibility and balance daily ((example: tai chi or chair yoga).
So, walking is great; that much is clear. However, it is also poses some dangers and risks. Here are some tips to get seniors on the road to independent mobility in the safest way possible:
- Don’t push through pain: If the elder feels any aches or pains, they should not continue to keep walking. Instead, they should stop for a moment, assess the pain, and determine if they can continue.
- Wear the appropriate gear: If it’s going to be cold, the senior walker should wear a coat or layer up their clothing. And, in the summer time, it’s important to still one wear’s walking shoes, instead of flip-flops or sandals. These have little to no traction and could be a tripping hazard.
- Bring water and a phone: Seniors must always have a bottle of water with them, to stay hydrated. They also should always bring a cellphone with them on their walk, so they have a lifeline if they need a ride home or have some type of incident.
- Rethink walking in inclement weather: Rain can make pavement and sidewalks slippery. Along the same lines, if it has snowed, then the slickness of the snow or ice can be dangerous for anyone to walk on, let alone seniors.
- Don’t go too fast: Yes, seniors can walk briskly, jog, or even run, but they should control their speed. If they lose control in a rush, they could slip, fall, and end up hurt.
- Pick the route ahead of time: It’s not ideal for a senior to blindly forge a path without having checked it first. They should be sure it’s clear of obstacles and other dangers before starting out.
A mobile life not only helps a senior’s sociability and mental health, it improves their physical health as well. Walking ca give them a healthier heart and bones. Seniors can generally walk pretty quickly, too, taking more than 1,000 steps during a 30-minute walk! Of course, as a senior gets older, their max speed will decelerate.
To stay as safe as possible on a walk, make sure to have good walking or running shoes (with good tread – not worn tread). Additionally, avoid going out in inclement weather, and check ahead of time that the intended walking route is safe. If the weather is not good, most indoor malls are open early in the morning so walkers have a place to exercise while remaining warm (or cool!) and dry.