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Why Holding Hands and Walking Briskly Don’t Go Hand in Hand

Couples walk slower when holding hands with a partner and faster on solo treks.

Key points

  • Romantic partners tend to amble when walking together; holding hands slows a couple's gait speed down even more.
  • Solo walkers tend to walk more briskly than romantic couples walking together. A perk of being single: faster gait speed.
  • Studies have identified a correlation between faster gait speed, increased longevity, and slower cognitive decline.
This post is in response to
Faster Walkers May Stay Healthier and Live Longer
BeautifulPicture/Shutterstock
Source: BeautifulPicture/Shutterstock
" And when I touch you, I feel happy inside. It's such a feelin' that my love, I can't hide. I can't hide. Yeah, you've got that somethin', I think you'll understand. When I feel that somethin', I wanna hold your hand. " —The Beatles, " I Want to Hold Your Hand " (1963)

Walking slowly with a romantic partner while holding hands nourishes one's psyche and soul in ways that differ from pounding the pavement on a brisk walk by yourself. Although walking quickly increases heart rate and gets the blood pumping in ways that promote physiological well-being and better brain health, the psychological benefits of holding hands while taking a stroll with your romantic partner shouldn't be underrated.

For example, the Italian tradition of strolling through town during an after-dinner passeggiata has innumerable psychological and community-building benefits. " La passeggiata " inherently involves a casual, laid-back gait speed and not rushing to get from point A to B. Taking a postprandial amble through the piazza at a slow, leisurely pace aids digestion and fortifies social connections as strollers mingle and converse with other pedestrians sauntering together through town and often holding hands.

Of course, there's a time and place for walking at a snail's pace while holding hands; taking slow, ambling walks with someone you love and affectionately holding hands should never be discouraged.

That said, if you're trying to boost your cardiorespiratory fitness and increase cerebral blood flow to your brain, new research suggests that walking side-by-side with a romantic partner slows people down, and holding hands while walking decreases a couple's gait speed even more. This peer-reviewed Purdue University study ( Cho et al., 2021 ) appears in the March 2021 issue of Gait & Posture .

Walking With a Romantic Partner Reduces Gait Speed but Boosts Social Support

"Walking at a brisk pace is widely recommended to promote health," the authors explain in the paper's abstract. "When partners walk together, walking activity is increased and maintained due to enhanced social support and accountability, but at least one person must adjust their gait speed. Decreased gait speed could compromise health benefits, which may be especially relevant for the aging population."

For this study into how walking alone or together with a romantic partner affects gait speed, the researchers examined the walking times and gait speeds of 72 couples. Study participants were between 25-79 years old. Gait speeds were measured under a series of different conditions: walking alone, walking together, walking together while holding hands, and walking on a clear or obstacle-filled pathway under all of these conditions.

"In our study, we focused on couples because partners in committed relationships often provide essential support to promote one another's healthy lifestyle behaviors, including exercise," co-author Melissa Franks said in an April 2021 news release .

"We were hoping that there would not be a reduction in speed where partners walked together. We hoped that slower partners would speed up to match the faster partner, but that was not the case," co-author Libby Richards added. "However, it's important to note that any physical activity or walking—regardless of speed—is better than none."

"If someone substantially slows down when they are walking with someone else, that could negate some of the health benefits recognized if they walked alone at a faster pace," Richards noted.

Walking Briskly Increases Cerebral Blood Flow and Promotes Brain Health

Another recently published one-year study ( Tomoto et al., 2021 ) of older adults found that moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise such as brisk walking increased cerebral blood flow and reduced arterial stiffness in ways that may help to keep aging brains healthy . Notably, the researchers found that "gentle stretching" or light physical activity at an easy pace did not provide the same neuroprotective benefits as walking briskly.

Another decades-long study ( Rasmussen et al., 2019 ) of gait speed at midlife found that slower walking speeds around age 45 were correlated with faster cognitive decline and poorer health when study participants reached an older age. Susan McQuillan reported on these findings in a Psychology Today blog post, " Faster Walkers May Stay Healthier and Live Longer ."

"Gait speed is a well-known indicator of risk of functional decline and mortality in older adults," the authors state. Based on their findings, Rasmussen et al. conclude: "Adults' gait speed is associated with more than geriatric functional status; it is also associated with midlife aging and lifelong brain health."

Taken together, the latest research suggests that walking at a faster pace promotes longevity, better brain health, and may help to offset cognitive decline. Nevertheless, holding hands while walking with a romantic partner tends to make people "feel happy inside" and reinforces social support.

Take-Home Advice : Creating a weekly routine that includes both brisk walks by yourself and slower walks while holding hands with a romantic partner may be the best way to "cover all your bases." Walking slowly with a romantic partner fulfills many psychological needs, whereas speeding up your gait speed when you're walking alone reaps other physiological and neuroprotective benefits.

References

HyeYoung Cho, Anna Forster, Sharon L. Christ, Melissa M. Franks, Elizabeth A. Richards, Shirley Rietdyk. "Changes to Gait Speed When Romantic Partners Walk Together: Effect of Age and Obstructed Pathway." Gait & Posture (First available online: February 18, 2021) DOI: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2021.02.017

Tsubasa Tomoto, Jie Liu, Benjamin Y. Tseng, Evan P. Pasha, Danilo Cardim, Takashi Tarumi, Linda S. Hynan, C. Munro Cullum, Rong Zhang. "One-Year Aerobic Exercise Reduced Carotid Arterial Stiffness and Increased Cerebral Blood Flow in Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment." Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (First published: March 23, 2021) DOI: 10.3233/JAD-201456

Line Jee Hartmann Rasmussen, Avshalom Caspi, Antony Ambler, et al. "Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Function With Gait Speed in Midlife." JAMA Network Open (First published: October 11, 2019) DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.13123

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