How fast does the Grim Reaper walk?

Can you outrun the Grim Reaper?

Nutritional Practitioner, BA (Hons), DN, DNT (Distinction)
Ask Ali

26 January 2012

Diet and circulation

In Sydney, Australia, a group of doctors and researchers working in geriatric medicine decided to see if they could work out how fast the Grim Reaper walks . . .

Bear with me: they had a valid aim, however morbid it may seem.

The study, in collaboration with the Concord Health and Ageing in Men Project (CHAMP), probed the link between walking speed and mortality in elderly men, humorously supposing that the Grim Reaper has a maximum walking speed and if one was able to walk faster than him (assuming that the Grim Reaper is male), you will be able to outrun death.

The study involved 1705 men aged 70 or more, living in Sydney. Walking speed is commonly used as a measure of physical ability in older people, and in previous studies, has been shown to predict the likelihood of survival, appearing to be consistent across several ethnic groups.

How fast do you need to walk?

Previous research found that there was an association between slow walking speed and death – but a definite biological relationship between the two remains unclear.

The cheery proposition of this study is that the Grim Reaper walks at a preferred speed of 2 miles or about 3 km per hour (under working conditions – they accept that he may alter speed in his leisure hours…). Men who can walk faster than this will leave the Grim Reaper in their wake (oh dear, no pun intended).

The men were timed walking a distance of 6 metres and the fastest time from two trials was used. The test was repeated at 4-monthly intervals over a period of five years.

Those who were able to walk faster than 2 miles per hour were 23% less likely to die than those who couldn’t attain that speed. None of the men in the study who could walk 3 miles per hour died during the study, so this would appear to be the Grim Reaper’s most likely maximum speed.

As the researchers point out, 2 miles per hour is the walking speed associated with average life expectancy at most ages and for both sexes across diverse populations, so this assessment of the Grim Reaper’s gait seems likely to apply irrespective of geographical location, sex, or ethnic background.

What does this mean for me?

On a serious note, the researchers conclude that there is indeed a strong link between walking speed and how long you live, and that measuring how fast one walks could be a good way of identifying individuals at higher risk of death, who may benefit from preventative interventions such as health promotional activities.

They hope that the knowledge that one can outstrip the speed of the Grim Reaper will motivate older men to be more active and partake in physical activities.

For those of us wishing to show the Grim Reaper our heels, the following advice can be useful:

  • Gentle regular exercise is more likely to be adhered to than sudden or unrealistically energetic programmes, so commit to a daily 10-20 minute walk rather than taking up squash or vowing to run a marathon by the summer. Once you’re more mobile you may find other active pursuits opening up to you.
  • Joining a yoga or Pilates class can help with flexibility and reduce stiffness that may impede exercise plans.
  • Breathlessness can be due to low iron levels, so try an iron tonic such as Floradix if you’re a little pale and tired and breathless. (Check with your doctor for an iron test if your fatigue or breathlessness is more than slight.)
  • Keep your blood vessels elastic with plentiful supplies of bioflavonoids from apricots, blackcurrants, blueberries, cherries, citrus fruits, kiwis, grapes, mangos, prunes, raspberries, carrots, green peppers, onions (especially red), tomatoes, and buckwheat.
  • Reduce aches and pains in your newly active legs with Horse Chestnut preparations.
  • Exercise with friends to increase your motivation and get the double benefit of social interaction.

Stanaway FF et al. BMJ 2011; 343: d7679

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