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Is It Time for a Mobility Check?

How to gauge how well you're walking, and when you might need some help

spinner image a nurse or physical therapy assistant is helping support an older man walk with a cane

You clutch the banister when climbing stairs, need 10 minutes to work out the kinks after getting out of bed in the morning, or cut back your weekend walks to give that wonky knee a break. Hey, we all expect to slow down as we grow older. But is a gimpy joint or teetering balance a normal part of aging, or a sign that you need help? The answer to that question matters — a lot.

A loss of mobility can kick off a cycle of trouble, says Mary O'Connor, M.D., director of the Center for Musculoskeletal Care at Yale New Haven Hospital. “Your knee hurts, you become less mobile and decrease your physical activity, but you're eating the same amount of food, so you gain weight. That added weight puts more pressure on your knee joints, which causes more pain.” And the results go beyond any arthritis, O'Connor notes. “Less physical activity, combined with obesity, can lead to heart disease, diabetes and hypertension."

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Mobility challenges can take a psychological toll. Lindsey Yourman, M.D., an internist and geriatrician, in La Jolla, California, who's affiliated with the Jacobs Medical Center at University of California San Diego Health, points to something known as “life space,” which is the distance that you can walk to safely — which determines the environment that is available to you on a regular basis.

"Decreased life space can mean decreased interactions with other people and decreased engagement in activities, which can lead to isolation and depression,” she says.

And then there's the dreaded f-word. “Balance and mobility keep us from falling, and when older people fall, very bad things happen,” O'Connor says. “You could break a hip, require surgery, have to go to a rehab facility and lose your independence.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 alone, more than 1 in 4 older adults reported falling, and more than 28,000 of them died as a result — that amounts to 74 older adults every day. And then there is this sobering stat, notes O'Connor: 20 percent of patients who break their hip die within a year.

Clues to consider

How good is your mobility? Gauging yourself can be tricky, although difficulty getting up from a kitchen chair or needing to hold onto furniture as you walk around a room are telltale signs of a problem. To get a more objective (read: accurate) appraisal of where you stand, ask a family member or close friend to watch while you walk across a room. They should be taking note of your gait speed and the movement of your feet, as well as these factors:

  • Are you shuffling or dragging your feet? Does the heel of one foot clear the toe of the other foot when you're walking?
  • How far apart are your feet when you're walking? “When someone spreads their feet really far apart — the standard I use is greater than 6 inches — that tends to indicate difficulty in balance,” Yourman says.
  • How symmetrical is your stride? “If you're favoring one leg because you can't fully tolerate bearing weight on one leg or the other, it can indicate a mobility issue, perhaps soreness from arthritis,” says Barbara Resnick, a registered nurse and professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.
  • Do you have difficulty pivoting? “If you walk down the hall and come back, how many steps does it take to turn? Generally, more than three steps tends to correlate with a mobility issue,” Yourman explains.
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Testing your own strength and balance

"Mobility is affected by a lot of different things — balance, coordination, response time and reflexes, among them,” says Greg Hartley, professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and president of the Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy, a component of the American Physical Therapy Association. “But the most likely culprits, when mobility starts to decline, are tightness or weakness in muscles.”

Indeed, people start to lose muscle during their early 40s. The trick is to address problems before they progress to a loss of mobility. Here are some tests to try at home to gauge where you stand.

30-second chair stand: Sit in the middle of a chair, with your back straight, arms crossed in front of you, feet flat on the floor. Rise to a full standing position, then sit back down again. Repeat this for 30 seconds. Count the number of times you come to a full standing position in 30 seconds.

  • Men ages 60 to 64 should be able to do at least 14; women, at least 12.
  • Men 65 to 69 should be able to do at least 12; women, at least 11.
  • Men 70 to 74 should be able to do at least 12; women, at least 10.
  • Men 75 to 79 should be able to do at least 11; women, at least 10.
  • Men 80 to 84 should be able to do at least 10; women, at least 9.
  • Men 85 to 89 should be able to do at least 8; women, at least 8.
  • Men 90 to 94 should be able to do at least 7; women, at least 4.

Tandem stand: While standing next to something sturdy that you can hold onto if you to lose your balance, put the heel of one foot on the toe of the other foot. Try to hold for more than 10 seconds, without swaying or having to move your feet. Repeat with the other foot.

One-legged stand: Make like a stork and try standing on one foot. “Not being able to hold the position for at least five seconds not only suggests a risk for falls, but also falls with injury,” Yourman says.

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