Walk into an exam room and a trained eye can tell a lot about you in seconds: Your stride, gait, pace, and posture while walking can reveal surprising information about your overall health and well-being.
"Many physicians are keenly aware, when they see someone walking down the street, what their diagnosis might be, whether their underlying health is good or bad, and if not good, a number of tip-offs to what might be wrong," says Charles Blitzer, an orthopedic surgeon in Somersworth, New Hampshire, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Find out what the following 15 walking styles may signal about your health.
Walking speed is a reliable marker for longevity, according to a University of Pittsburgh analysis of nine large studies, reported in a January 2011 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. The 36,000 subjects were all over age 65. In fact, predicting survival based on walking speed proved to be as accurate as using age, sex, chronic conditions, smoking, body mass index, hospitalizations, and other common markers. It's especially accurate for those over age 75.
The average speed was 3 feet per second (about two miles an hour). Those who walked slower than 2 feet per second (1.36 miles per hour) had an increased risk of dying. Those who walked faster than 3.3 feet per second (2.25 miles per hour) or faster survived longer than would be predicted simply by age or gender.
A 2006 report in JAMA found that among adults ages 70 to 79, those who couldn't walk a quarter mile were less likely to be alive six years later. They were also more likely to suffer illness and disability before death. An earlier study of men ages 71 to 93 found that those who could walk two miles a day had half the risk of heart attack of those who could walk only a quarter mile or less.
Simply walking faster or farther doesn't make you healthier -- in fact, pushing it could make you vulnerable to injury. Rather, each body seems to find a natural walking speed based on its overall condition. If it's slow, it's usually because of underlying health issues that are cutting longevity.
"It's really amazing the way that we're made," says physical therapist Steve Bailey, owner of Prompt Physical Therapy in Knoxville, Tennessee. As the left leg comes forward, the spine goes into a right rotation and the right arm moves back. This coordination of the muscles on both sides is what gives support to the lower back, he says.
If someone is walking without much swing to the arm, it's a red flag that the spine isn't being supported as well as it could be, because of some kind of limitation in the back's mobility. Back pain or a vulnerability to damage can follow. "Arm swing is a great indicator of how the back is functioning," Bailey says.
May reveal: Ruptured disk in back, possible stroke
Sometimes experts don't have to see you walk -- they can hear you coming down the hall. A condition called "foot slap" or "drop foot" is when your foot literally slaps the ground as you walk. "It's caused by muscle weakness of the anterior tibial muscle or the peroneal muscles," says podiatrist Jane E. Andersen, who has a practice in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is a past president of the American Association for Women Podiatrists.
A healthy stride starts with a heel strike, then the foot slowly lowers to the ground, then it lifts from the toe and slings back to your heel. But with drop foot, muscle control is lost and the foot can't return slowly to the ground. Instead, it "slaps" the ground.
"This could be a sign of a stroke or other neuromuscular event, or of compression of a nerve," Andersen says. A ruptured disk in the back is a common cause, since it can compress a nerve that travels down the leg. A rare cause of drop foot is simply crossing your legs, Andersen says, if the common peroneal nerve is disrupted from the pressure.