It’s no secret that texting while walking can be dangerous. But now new research from the University of Delaware, Loyola University and Elizabethtown College is suggesting that using your cellphone is changing how you walk.
Combining mechanical engineering and cognitive psychology, the researchers measured how people walking on a treadmill while tasked with dialing a phone number adapted their gait.
“There were measurable changes in gait,” said Christopher Higginson, one of the study’s authors and associate professor of psychology at Loyola University. “And those changes are generally consistent with the changes you see in somebody when they’re trying to make their gait more stable.”
They found that their study subjects took longer strides, flexed their knees and stiffened their ankles.
Previous studies have shown that people walking while performing another task (such as texting) usually slow down in order to be stable, but this is the first study to show how our bodies adapt to become stable while walking at the same speed.
“Our study does show that your gait does change naturally. It’s not something that anybody has to think about,” said Higginson. “But despite those natural changes to be more careful, you are still more prone to make mistakes of attention and you’re more prone to trip and fall on things should the surface that you’re walking on change.”
However Higginson and his colleagues found that their study subjects were mostly accurate when tasked with dialing phone numbers.
“What we noticed was, when they’re dialing the phone they don’t really make any more mistakes or dial the phone any slower than when they do dial the phone sitting down. So, walking really didn’t seem to impact their ability to dial the phone which was a little bit surprising to us. But in retrospect maybe not because it’s not a terribly cognitively demanding task.”
Which begs the question: With so many people walking while using their phones – and fairly adept at it too – will the human gait evolve to become more stable over the years to account for this diversion of attention?
Higginson doesn’t think so.
“Evolution takes place over thousands of years so it’s not something that you’d expect to happen within a couple of generations,” he said. “My hunch is that that’s not going to lead to any measurable changes to the way humans walk over the next decade or so.”