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Are Baby Boomers Becoming the New Walking Disabled?

As people age beyond their sixties, many are losing the ability to walk for more than a couple of blocks. If they cannot walk a quarter of a mile, seven blocks, without assistance, their lack of mobility is termed walking disabled.
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We were at a museum in the Berkshires whose overflow parking lot was about a 12- minute walk to the entrance. The couple we were with were somewhat dubious about whether they could walk that far. They did, but, after a couple of hours strolling very slowly throughout the museum, asked if they could ride back to the parking lot on the museum's golf cart. They were not sick, and neither have any disabilities that would have prevented them from walking further....the weather not too hot to make being outside for long unpleasant. But they were not young and gradually, almost imperceptively, over the years they had decreased the amount of time and distance they could walk. So to them? The additional 8th of a mile to the car was more than their stamina and legs could handle.

Mary (not her real name) mentioned that she had started to record her daily steps and some days was managing to approach 5,000. Her goal was to double that amount, but she admitted that she was so unaccustomed to walking that she tired easily.

Unfortunately, our friends are not unique. As people age beyond their sixties, many are losing the ability to walk for more than a couple of blocks. If they cannot walk a quarter of a mile, seven blocks, without assistance, their lack of mobility is termed walking disabled.

The consequences of being walking disabled have been studied by Dr. Thomas Gill, professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. He and his associates followed about 640 people age 70 and older for 12 years and assessed their ability to carry out what is called activities of daily life. Their results, published in the January 2012 Annals of Internal Medicine, found that as people lost the ability to walk, they lost their independence, too. If the inability to walk follows an inability to drive, the effects on quality of life are obvious.

How does someone who can no longer drive and no longer walk more than a block or two manage to go anywhere? The supermarket, library, pharmacy, movies, restaurants, shops, a local park, museums, and concerts are all out of reach. Even public transportation such as buses that can be boarded by someone with a walker are inaccessible if an individual can't walk to the bus stop or do errands when reaching a destination. As Dr. Gill points out, the effect is social isolation, dependence on family and friends, and often depression and possibly cognitive decline due to lack of conversation and contact with others. The walking disabled become shut-ins and, in a sense, shut away from the kinds of casual contact that those of us who are able to walk take for granted.

But physical immobility need not be an inevitable aspect of aging.

The proliferation of devices and apps that measure walking distance or steps should allow everyone to learn just how active or sedentary they are. Day-to-day variations are averaged into weekly totals, and these data are stored so the wannabe walker has a record of steps or miles walked over a long period of time. Variations can occur, of course, because of weather (too hot or cold, rain, ice, or snow) or other factors such as lack of time. But daily variations eventually smooth out and offer a good record for the individual, as well as a medical care provider, of average daily activity and how much it changes over time. For example, if Mary continues her walking regimen, she should find herself walking further simply because her increased muscle strength and stamina will allow her to go longer distances without getting tired.

But what caused Mary, an otherwise healthy individual, to be unable to walk to the parking lot from the museum, a distance that presumably was considered close enough for most visitors to cover without needing transportation?

One answer is the national attitude toward walking: why walk if you can drive? Why have sidewalks in suburban communities if everyone drives or is driven? Why enable anyone to walk across a highway to get to a shopping mall if everyone drives to it? Why have children walk to school when they can be bused or driven or eventually drive themselves? Why get out of the car to go to the bank when you can go to a drive-through teller?

A few days ago in the gym I watched a television program featuring prospective house buyers. A woman, in her early forties, was shown what seemed to be a lovely property and told that a beach was a mile away. She said, "I am not going to walk a mile to the beach. It is much too far."

"Really, lady..." I wanted to say, "If you can't walk a mile when you are in your forties, you may not be able to walk around the block 30 years later."

Fortunately, attitudes are changing.

Urban planners are developing walkable cities and towns. Properties located in walkable areas are considered desirable, not just because the sidewalks and parks provide opportunities for exercise but, just as important, they provide the opportunity to connect with neighbors and with the community. Walking groups are becoming popular now, so someone for whom walking is a boring solitary activity can interact with others in a moving vertical social group. For people like Mary, it is possible to regain the ability to walk long distances by walking in a pool or on a treadmill. Treadmills allow the emerging walker adjust the time and speed and obtain an accurate display of distance. Walking in a park or on sidewalks with available benches upon which to rest, in case of fatigue, removes the fear of not having the energy to get back home.

Changing the walking disabled into the walking enabled may take time, but doing so has benefits far beyond walking to a parking lot.