We text and walk and veer off course

STONY BROOK (US) — Talking or texting on a phone while walking can make it difficult to stay on course and may interfere with memory recall, research shows.

Thirty-three men and women in their 20s, all of whom used a cell phone and were familiar with texting, participated in a study reported in the journal Gait & Posture.

To assess walking abilities, participants completed a baseline test. Each participant was shown a target on the floor eight meters away. Then, by obstructing vision of the target and floor, participants were instructed to walk at a comfortable pace to the target and stop. They repeated the same walk three times. After each walk, the amount of time it took and the position where each participant stopped was measured.


Participants returned one week later. With vision occluded except for the ability to see a cell phone, one-third completed the exact same task; one-third completed the task while talking on a cell phone; and one-third completed the task while texting

“We were surprised to find that talking and texting on a cell phone were so disruptive to one’s gait and memory recall of the target location,” says Eric M. Lamberg, clinical associate professor of physical therapy at Stony Brook University and co-author of the study.

The changes from the baseline blindfolded walk to testing indicated that participants who were using a cell phone to text while walking and those who used a cell phone to talk while walking were significantly slower, with 33 and 16 percent reductions in speed, respectively.

Moreover, participants who were texting while walking veered off course demonstrating a 61 percent increase in lateral deviation and 13 percent increase in distance traveled.

Although walking seems automatic, areas in the brain controlling executive function and attention are necessary for walking. The significant reductions in velocity and difficulty maintaining course indicates cell phone use and texting impacts working memory of these tasks, Lamberg says.

“We are using the findings to help physical therapy patients improve true functional walking while making them aware that some tasks may affect their gait and/or certain aspects of memory recall.”

Using a cell phone while walking reflects a “real world” activity, one that recovering patients are likely to engage in sooner rather than later during their recovery process

The study is also being used to help them further understand the underlying mechanism causing the difficulty in performing the dual-task of walking while using a cell phone, says co-author Lisa M. Muratori, clinical associate professor of physical therapy.

While further studies with larger and more varied populations are necessary, Lamberg and Muratori say the results bring new and important insight into the effects of multi-tasking with mobile devices. Elucidating the cause of this disruption may allow for new physical therapy treatment interventions and modifications in technology—such as voice-activated texts—that may lessen the potential dangers of walking while using hand-held devices.

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