The strategies of fear: how do young and older walkers develop a cautious gait, and can it be shaped through training?

Activity: Examination, teaching and supervisionSupervision and examination of PhD students of the UGAcademic


Walking is essentially a sequence of falls, and therefore a challenging and dangerous activity. This is particularly evident in people with impaired walking skills due to natural aging or pathology. These persons often display a fear of falling, and as a result develop a 'cautious gait' (CG): they walk slower, and with wider and shorter steps. This proactive gait strategy is a complex and somewhat paradoxical phenomenon: although it is intended to protect against slips, trips, and falls, it may actually induce a non-adaptive, unstable gait and result in further deterioration of walking ability. As of yet, we know little about the underlying mechanisms of a CG. Recently, a protocol was developed (DHMS/UMCG, University of Groningen) which allows the structural investigation of CG, by imposing virtual slips on a treadmill. The aim of the current proposal is (i) to provide insight into the development of CG, (ii) to establish the effects of age on experimentally induced CG, and (iii) to understand how CG can be shaped through training and instruction.
Basic information
Research proposal
Center for Human Movement Sciences (CHMS)
Application form CHMS MSc/PhD-programme 2
To this end, four studies will be conducted. In study 1 (data collection complete; manuscript in preparation), it was investigated (i) if and how CG can be experimentally induced after offering virtual slips, (ii) how CG after repeated slipping differs qualitatively from the CG that is displayed after participants are merely warned, and (iii) how long it takes for CG to extinguish after slips are no longer presented. In study 2, it will be determined (i) whether and how age affects experimentally induced CG, (ii) how CG strategies are related to clinical measures of walking ability and fear of falling, and (iii) how the extinction rate of experimentally induced CG is related to age, walking ability and fear of falling. In study 3, we will determine to what extent experimentally induced CG affects reactions to unexpected, aberrant perturbation stimuli, and how this differs between young and old participants. Finally, in study 4, we will examine whether CG can be shaped through a single training session based on self-induced treadmill slips. Collectively, these studies will provide insight into how CG develops, how it relates to age, walking ability, and fear of falling, and how it can be shaped through training. This knowledge can serve as a starting point for the development of targeted interventions to promote the adequate use of CG strategies by older adults.
ExamineeSander Swart
Degree of RecognitionInternational