Fitness Technology

What Those Walking Stats on Your Smartphone Truly Say About Your Overall Health

Photo: Getty Images/Nicola Katie
At the end of the day, like a lot of us, I make a bad habit of lying on my couch and mindlessly opening up apps on my phone. Once I've gotten bored with Instagram and Strava, I'll often open my iPhone’s Health app to check out my daily stats. I'll browse through my time in bed, step count, and heart rate variability, and then I'll scroll down through all the gait analysis numbers—but to be honest, that's all they really are to me: numbers. I don't know what to look for, or what the stats truly say. Does having a 25.9 percent double support time mean I'm bad at walking?

For more context, I recently hopped on a call with Hila Glick, BPT, vice president of physical therapy and patient experience at OneStep, a digital physical therapy platform. Among other things, the company's app uses the gait analysis on smartphones to gather information about its patients' overall health.

"We look at different parameters, such as the patient's speed and step length, the consistency of the patient's walk, how one step looks as opposed to the next one," Glick explains. While the OneStep PTs never consider just one parameter, taken together as part of a bigger picture, these stats can tell a story. Here, Glick shares what some of the numbers may be able to tell those of us about our own health and fitness.

Double support time

This is the phase of your walk when both feet are on the floor. A faster gait will typically lead to a lower number here since you'll likely have quicker turnover from one foot to the next.The average falls between 20 and 40 percent, according to Apple.

"We can learn a lot about a patient who spends too much time on both legs," says Glick. "This could be a signal that someone might be feeling unstable." In that case, Glick says, they'd work together on balance exercises and fall prevention.

Walking asymmetry

Glick points out that humans aren't symmetrical creatures. "Our face is not perfectly symmetrical, and our gait is not perfectly symmetrical," she says. The average walking asymmetry for healthy, younger adults falls between 5 and 15 percent, while older adults are typically closer to 15 to 20 percent, according to a study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

"If someone is very consistent with asymmetry, we can be calm about it," Glick says. But her team stays on the lookout for spikes to see if a patient is suddenly favoring one leg. This could mean that one side has grown weaker than the other, or they're limping due to pain. Or, it could simply mean they started carrying a bag on one shoulder, or walking on an uneven road. Like all of these gait analysis stats, they have to be considered in context.

Step length

Just like it sounds, this measures the distance you travel with each step. It's a super individual number, and varies a lot from person to person, though it depends on your height (obviously) and gender, and it generally decreases with age as mobility, or range of motion, is typically reduced and balance becomes more of a challenge. It also isn't as tied to your walking speed as you may assume: "Some people walk with shorter steps, but very fast, some have big, longer steps and walk relatively slowly," says Glick. Rather than looking for a specific number, she says, the main goal here should really be to feel comfortable and stable and able to maintain your stride for a long period of time. You do you. 

Stair speed: up and down

Glick points out that stairs can be a major issue for certain patients. "Some people are scared of them, and avoid them," she says. But even if you don't have stairs in your home, mastering the motion is essential for everyday life for most of us, whether it's getting on or off a curb, or going up a couple steps to enter a building, she points out. When her team sees an exceptionally slow speed that indicates someone may be closing one foot after the other on each step, they'll check in to see if it may be an issue involving knee pain, stability, or cardiovascular health.

Walking heart rate average

If your smartphone is connected to a fitness watch, you'll likely also be able to see your walking heart rate. Walking should be a low- to moderate-intensity activity, which means it would fall between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. But rather than looking at a particular number, Glick says the key is paying attention to how you feel when walking—you don't want your heart beating so fast that you have to stop and rest for a minute after just walking to the mailbox.

The bigger picture

So why do all these stats matter? Glick points out that, in general, for those of us who can walk, doing it more often and being aware of the quality of our walk is one of the best things we can do for our health. "This is how we move around—not with squats, and not with swimming," she says. "We walk our way around the world, so we want to make sure this basic skill is being done with the best quality possible."

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