Dr. Casey Kerrigan reads a lot into the way people carry themselves. As chair of UVA’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, she’s been investigating how people walk, particularly as they age, and has emerged with an original analysis.

Kerrigan discovered that elders have a reduced range of hip motion at faster walking speeds—in fact, their peak hip extension is 5 degrees less than it is in younger adults. The difference is the result of stiffness in the hip flexor muscles, but the repercussions are serious: “If the range is limited, secondary problems such as short step length, postural changes and back pain will develop,” says Kerrigan. And the consequences of diminished walking ability can mean loss of independence and a reduced quality of life.

Most exercise programs for seniors focus on building strength in all muscle groups, but few have resulted in measurable improvements in gait. If older adults did simple, targeted hip extension exercises to increase flexibility, their gait would improve, Kerrigan believes, and promising early results of her study have earned a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. One of the exercises that shows potential? Yoga.