Leisurely Walks May Be Safer Than Walking With Purpose

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Fall risk increased for older people running errands compared to those taking a stroll

July 22, 2014 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

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(dailyRx News) Walking is typically a good form of exercise, but it can also be dangerous for older people who risk falling. Researchers have recently identified some places and times where walking was safer than others.

Walking for fun, in fields or in grassy areas seemed safer than walking to complete chores, on sidewalks or on streets, these researchers found.

"Stay aware of falling hazards and risks when walking."

The research was conducted by Wenjun Li, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Boston, and colleagues.

Dr. Li and team looked at data from the "Maintenance of Balance, Independent Living, Intellect and Zest in the Elderly of Boston" study that included 765 men and women, mostly 70 and older, who lived in Boston.

These researchers reviewed how healthy participants were, determined how much they walked and why, assessed falls and asked about socioeconomic status. Participants had a comprehensive assessment and clinical exam and answered a self-administered questionnaire between September 2005 and December 2007. The researchers gathered walking habit information from 750 participants.

Participants reported 1,766 falls during the study.

The researchers found that people who walked for utilitarian purposes (necessary errands) were twice as likely to fall as people who walked for recreation. Furthermore, participants were four times more likely to be injured if they fell on the sidewalk than if they fell in recreational areas like grass, the researchers reported.

Those who walked for utilitarian purposes tended to live in areas with low socioeconomic status and walked about 14 fewer blocks per week than recreational walkers. They also walked about 25 fewer blocks per week than dual walkers (people who reported walking for both recreational and utilitarian purposes).

Falls were the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries in adults 65 and older, and about 10 percent of falls needed medical attention, the researchers reported.

The authors of this study did not know why utilitarian walkers and those living in areas with low socioeconomic status were most prone to falling on sidewalks, curbs and streets.

“These differences were not explained by individual factors such as an elder’s health, leading us to conclude the environment may play a significant role” Dr. Li said in a press release. “Further research will explore how elders interact with their environment and how to make neighborhoods safer for utilitarian walking.”

Jim Crowell, owner and head trainer at Integrated Fitness in Pittsburgh, told dailyRx News that, in his experience, each time obstacles are put into what seems like a normal situation, the likelihood of injuries rises.

“Even if that situation is an everyday sidewalk and the obstacles are cracks or bumps, this can lead to the elderly missing a step or catching a toe and falling,” he said. “I often work balance, strength and flexibility with clients, especially elderly clients. When a person builds their body in a controlled setting such as a gym, they often have a better ability to adapt quickly if they take a poor step on bad ground."

Dr. Li’s study was published online July 17 in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging. The researchers used funding from Pfizer to code and classify medications. The authors made no other disclosures.

Review Date: 
July 22, 2014
Last Updated:
July 24, 2014