If you don’t use it, you may not lose it, but it won’t benefit you as intended

Nov 29, 2022 | Blog, Science Simplified

New research tracks the use of mobility aids through remote monitoring


Safe and effective mobility (or walking) is an important contributor to healthy aging. One strategy often adopted to address changes in mobility is the use of a mobility aid such as a cane, walker or walking poles.

Tracking the use of mobility aids

Mobility aids can promote safe and effective walking, support independence and help reduce the risk of falls.

New ONDRI research that is yet-to-be published, is exploring how often and under what conditions mobility aids are used in an older adult population.

This research study is being led by Sherri Thomson PhD, a post-doctoral fellow and physiotherapist who is part of the ONDRI team working in the Neuroscience, Mobility and Balance (NiMBaL) Lab, in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo. With an interest in early intervention to promote healthy aging and preserved mobility in older adults, Thomson brings combined clinician and research expertise to these questions.

Preliminary research results indicate that the way we typically ask individuals to self-report their mobility aid use — usually by indicating “yes, I use them” or “no, I don’t use them” — may not paint a true picture of how they are actually being used.

Defining healthy movement

For movement to be considered healthy it should be:

  • Continuous
  • Successful in achieving its goals
  • Reducing the risk of injury
  • Efficient – in the sense that it achieves its goals with the minimal amount of energy expenditure and/or strain
  • Adaptable to meet the demands of the environment or task

Mobility aids can play an important role in helping to promote healthy movement, but only if they are appropriately used.

More on ONDRI‘s study

The purpose of the new study is to better understand the relationship between the way mobility aids are used in day-to-day activities versus the way individuals describe their use.

As part of a larger study, participants donned multiple body-worn sensors for a period of a week while going about their usual activities.

In addition, those participants who used an aid filled out a questionnaire that probed its use — including the type of aid they used and what situations they used it in.

For those who considered themselves aid users, sensors were affixed to their aids, so that researchers could independently track the use of the aids and how this use related to their daily walking activity.

ONDRI researchers are examining signals from the body-worn and aid-mounted sensors. By comparing these data, they are examining how patterns in self-reported mobility aid use relate to patterns in walking behaviour, and to the actual use of mobility aids in day-to-day life.

The goal of this research is to better understand the relationship between self-reported and actual use of aids.

Preliminary findings

There appears to be a large degree of variability in both when and how often mobility aids are used. That is, some people use them all the time, while others only use them when navigating long hallways, going outside, etc. This variability also shows up in the difference between actual and self-reported usage patterns. Thomson says these findings support the idea that people who use mobility aids are a diverse group, and that a simple yes or no reporting system of mobility aid use may miss important nuances about an individual’s mobility and their walking behaviours.

Understanding the relationships between reported and actual aid use may support the development of a more personalized approach to activity promotion in older adults, one that encourages increased mobility that is safe and effective.

Reduced mobility can lead to reduced life space

“In our work, we talk about the concept of life space, which is the area within the home and community in which people travel in their day-to-day lives,” said Thomson.

Reduced life space can be a marker of decline in health. If individuals who require mobility aids are not using them, or if they are using them less than they should, this can have an impact on their ability to be safely and fully engaged in their daily life. In turn, this could have implications on both their life space, and their overall health.

This important work continues and will be published in the near future.

For more on the benefits of remote monitoring in ONDRI research, click here.

Sherri Lynn Thomson, PhD.

Sherri Lynn Thomson, PhD.

ONDRI Researcher

Read Sherri Lynn’s bio here.

Karen Van Ooteghem, PhD.

Karen Van Ooteghem, PhD.

ONDRI Researcher

Read Karen’s bio here.