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Your Walking Pace, Thighs, and Longevity

I’m sure you shared my sense of relief when you read earlier this year that being a tad overweight actually was a positive in terms of lifespan. Not obese by any means, but a little chunky–husky if you will–was just fine. Researchers analyzed thousands of moderately overweight people and concluded that their all-cause mortality was actually lower (research-speak for “they lived longer”) than both normal-weight and underweight populations. Having a few extra pounds seems to be good for you—hooray!

But before you get carried away please do read the fine print, here for the original JAMA abstract or here for a friendlier explanation of how researchers established all this. Our old friend the body mass index (BMI) returns as a measuring tool, and an imperfect one at that since it measures weight, period, without registering whether it comes from muscle or fat. Read all the way to the end of that second link to also be reminded about belly fat and the importance of where you carry your extra weight.

Generally, though, cheerful epidemiologic studies like this one (which also happens to be in synch with me and my physique) are few and far between. I savor news that it’s unhealthful to be a teetotaler and that coffee makes you smarter.

You may not be as pleased with a couple more recent studies, but they’re certainly worth a look. One concerns how fast you walk while the other focuses on the state of your thighs, the astute among you having already grasped that the two are inextricably linked.

Speed it up
The first study correlated walking speed with longevity. It was simple enough: people 65 and older who’d walked fast their entire lives had better health, remained independent, and had the optimal version of lower all-cause mortality (they lived the longest) compared to those who had steadily slowed their pace over the years. Very slow walking in your 70s and beyond was definitely not a good sign.

Because of the age of the study group, you may feel seriously uninvolved. But don’t rush to judgment. It’s very likely that the fast-walking older folk who are still doing so well were fleet of foot their entire lives. The point is that whether you’re 20, 40, or 60 years old, speed it up. Get it into your mind that any time you’re heading from point A to B you’ll go into overdrive with your feet. Speed is the name of the game.

Of course this doesn’t mean you should abandon the occasional stroll, alone and mindfully meditating or with a companion chatting. Just keep in mind that if you’re walking somewhere (and you should be, regularly), you want to get into the habit of doing it quickly.

This study addresses your thighs (are you still with me?)
You may already know that as you get older, unless you’re really paying attention to your workout, your muscles will slowly be infiltrated by fatty tissue. DEXA and CT scans reveal a decade-by-decade encroachment of muscle by fat. And because fat can’t do much except sit there, as a result your muscles gradually weaken as you age. Focused exercise, however, slows the inevitable decline of muscle. Consider your thighs, the very muscles you need to walk fast, maintain balance, and get up from a sitting position. When fat replaces muscle in your thighs, your walking speed s-l-o-w-s way down and your balance and strength suffer too. If you slow down too much, that 90-plus lifespan you predicted for yourself fades away.

This news about fatty thighs, slower gait, and longevity came from a recently published study that tracked the overall health of 2000 men and women over 70. It concluded that fat infiltration of thigh muscles correlated strongly with a decline in walking speed, which then correlated with overall health, independent living, and the ominous “all cause mortality.” Quite a price to pay for weak and flabby thighs.

So let’s do something about it, right now. First, slide your chair away from your desk. Spread your legs slightly with your feet firmly on the floor. Take a deep breath. Don’t be afraid. Even the worst-case scenario is reversible. And now, go ahead. Jiggle your thighs.

What do you see? Can you boast the taut confidence of a muscular pair of powerful thighs? Or do yours quiver like gelatin?

Don’t be daunted. Remember, your longevity is at stake here.

I can probably guess your results. If your workout has included lifting heavy things or if you’re a regular brisk walker or treadmill/elliptical habitué, then likely you’re in a safe harbor. If not and you’ve been ignoring your thighs, start today and get to work. Here’s a straightforward video that shows probably the most direct way to build thigh muscle. Take it a squat/step at a time.

If I could, I’d give you a t-shirt:

Walk extra fast
Exercise those thighs
Outlive your friends

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD



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