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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Study Examining Health Benefits of Walking and Chewing Gum

By Irvin B. Harrell

Ever heard the expression "You can't walk and chew gum at the same time"?

The phrase typically refers to a person's inability to perform two trivial tasks simultaneously. But researchers at Old Dominion University are examining what happens when people do walk and chew gum at the same time - and the ramifications for physical rehabilitation.

"There has been research on chewing gum," said Endowed Professor Steven Morrison, director of research for the School of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training. "And there's plenty of research on walking. But what happens when you chew and walk? There's nothing on it."

Two graduate students - one studying physical therapy and the other speech pathology - are conducting the research. Thus far, their findings are enlightening and potentially therapeutic.

"Everyone walks quicker when they chew," Morrison said. "You tend to chew at a rate that is faster than your gait. When you begin to chew, you take off."

But it doesn't stop there. What happens when you try to chew at the same rate as your gait?

"According to our early findings, a person's preferred walking speed is still slower than they can walk chewing gum slowly," Morrison said.

The gum/gait project is the latest in an array of fascinating research projects in which Morrison has taken part. When you spend your life studying human motor control, you never know where it may take you, he said.

"You go to work every day thinking you know what you're going to see and the direction it's going to go, and it usually doesn't go that way," he said. "Then you have to realign your thought process. It's like a jigsaw puzzle."

Morrison's teaching and research focus on how injury, disease and aging contribute to a decline in flexibility and variability of motor function. One of his goals is finding innovative ways to mitigate this decline.

In the case of the gum/gait research, if chewing gum can speed up your gait, "think about the implications for rehabilitation," Morrison said. "This could be a very easy therapeutic intervention down the road."

The researchers have targeted three groups for their study: young people, healthy adults and clinical populations. Participants are given reaction time tests, which involve clicking a mouse when a red light flashes. "This is a commonly used metric in determining fall risks as well," Morrison said.

Participants are fitted with a device on their cheek to track chewing at different speeds and devices on their legs and waist to track walking gaits. Researchers plan to collect data on the first group over the summer, Morrison said, and they will write an abstract for a neuroscience conference in November.

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