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If you or a loved one begin to experience declining mobility, it might be time to get a mobility aid. This is a great option if you find yourself dealing with medical conditions that impact your balance, gait, or leg strength or are recovering from knee, hip, or other lower limb surgeries or injuries. But it’s also a good fit for those who grow tired when walking long distances or who have balance issues.
But then the next question becomes what mobility device do I get? You have a couple of options—canes, walkers, or rollators. But what’s the difference between a rollator and a walker?
While they have similar purposes, a rollator and a walker are actually different products. According to physiotherapist Marco Castenetto, a rollator has two front wheels and two back wheels. “It gives support and mobility over longer distances,” he says. A walker, on the other hand, has four legs (or sometimes two legs and two small wheels). You’ll sometimes see tennis balls on two of the legs to make it easier to push. “It gives sturdy support and balance for short and medium distances,” says Castenetto.
A rollator is used as a mobility aid, helping to steady a person while walking, while still allowing for maximum mobility. Most rollators have a fixed or fold-up seat on which a person can sit, which also makes rollator walkers ideal for those who fatigue easily and need to rest while on-the-go. Rollators are more “all-terrain” than traditional walkers, making them the ideal mobility device for those who enjoy time outdoors or have a more active lifestyle. Ultimately, rollators are designed to enhance balance and walking speed while being used and are perfect for use over long distances.
When facing mobility issues, everyone has different needs depending on their physical abilities and their lifestyle. Read on for the top considerations to make when choosing between a rollator and traditional walker.
But it’s also worth noting that you don’t have to make this decision on your own. Dr. Brittany Ferri, an occupational therapist and founder of Simplicity of Health, says, “If you need specific help choosing between these devices, ask an occupational or physical therapist for advice.”
“Individuals considering a walker vs a rollator should first look at their balance and the sort of support they need,” says Dr. Ferri. “Rollators are faster devices (which is why they have brakes) and … they also have four wheels, which lends itself to more speed.”
Nick Parmigiano, MSPT, expounds on this. “A standard walker … is for people who may be limited in weight bearing on one of their legs,” he says. “It is more stable than a walker with wheels and allows a person to use their arms to press down into the handles to take weight off one of their legs.”
Rolling walkers have the standard legs at the back of the walker, but the front two legs have small wheels which allows a person to move a bit faster. “A rolling walker is safer if someone is able to fully weight bear on both legs and they are stable enough to walk at a more normal speed,” says Parmigiano.
Aside from balance and support needs, those looking at rollators vs walkers should consider the terrain on which they’ll be navigating. Do you enjoy going on walks outside? When you do, are you mostly on pavement, or do you go “off-roading” on gravel or dirt paths? Inside your house are you primarily navigating hardwood floors, or are you dealing with area rugs or wall-to-wall carpeting. All of these terrains should be considered in your decision-making process.
“Someone looking into a standard walker must be able to push the walker over tough surfaces like carpet, so they should have enough upper body strength for this,” says Dr. Ferri.
On a rollator, “The larger wheels allow increased walking speed, particularly on unlevel outdoor terrain such as driveway pavers,” says Parmigiano. This is a better choice for those who enjoy outdoor walks, as the four larger wheels can handle uneven terrain, plus you can move at more of a typical walking pace.
Your height is another factor when considering a rollator vs walker. Many rollators and walkers have adjustable height, but obviously there are limitations within that. When choosing a mobility aid, you want to make sure you can adjust it to a point where you can stand up fairly straight while using the device. If you find yourself very hunched over, the product isn’t tall enough for you.
Your weight is another significant factor. Different rollators and walkers have different weight limits. Most standard walkers are built for people weighing 175-300 pounds. For those weighing 300-500 pounds, you’ll want to consider an extra-wide, heavy-duty bariatric walker. Rollators have similar weight restrictions, and this is especially important to consider if a rollator has a built-in seat, which will need to support your full weight vs just your upper body weight. Standard rollators often support up to 300 pounds, while heavy duty rollator walkers can support up to 500 pounds. When shopping for a rollator or walker, it’s important to look at the weight limit of each product you’re considering.
Upper body strength is a factor, particularly for those considering a traditional walker, since four-legged walkers need to be lifted up slightly with every step. Walkers with two wheels don’t require quite as much upper body strength, but on tough terrain may still require lifting up the walker. Rollators, on the other hand, don’t require that same upper body strength.
“A rollator doesn't need to be lifted up and can be used by patients without core muscle stability impairments, arms and legs weaknesses,” says physiotherapist Marco Castenetto. “In case of neurological deficits like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer’s, it is very useful to help people to improve walking and core muscles stability, even though most of the time the patient needs some kind of assistance.”
Castenetto adds that, “A walker is more difficult to move due to needing to lift it up. It can be adopted after surgical treatments like knee/hip replacements and leg fractures, as an effective way to reduce the postoperative recuperative period.”
It’s worth noting that standard walkers weigh around 5-6 pounds, while a walker with two front wheels is usually around 7-8 pounds. Rollators can vary quite a bit in their weight, depending on the materials with which they’re made, varying anywhere from 10-25 pounds. If you’re using a rollator or walker, it’s important that you have the upper body strength to hold yourself up and remain stable, and push or lift the aid without issue. And, if you’re unable to lift the mobility aid on your own, it’s important that you have a caretaker or family member who’s able to fold and lift it into vehicles for transport.
You should use a rollator if you tire easily when walking, as the built-in seat allows for resting. However, make sure that you’re steady enough on your feet that you can brake and stop the rollator without losing your balance. If you’re unsteady on your feet to the point of falling, you risk more falls when trying to brake, adjusting the wheels or turning, or when going downhill.
Walkers are a great choice for those recovering from lower-body or hip replacement surgery and/or those who cannot fully bear weight on one of their legs. A walker allows the user to take weight off of one leg and transfer that weight to the walker while staying steady.
Rollator or cane? This is really up to your personal needs and preferences. A cane is a great choice if you need minimal support for short distances. With their low profile, they’re also a great choice when navigating crowded or tight spaces. However, they don’t offer as much balance support as a rollator, nor the seat for resting that a rollator offers. (Though, a quad cane does offer more balance support than a standard cane.) Really, a rollator isn’t better than a cane, it’s just different and caters to different needs and wants.
Rollators are specifically designed for those with balance issues, making it a better choice. Since you don’t have to lift a rollator when walking, like you do with a traditional walker, you can maintain a normal gait when walking.
However, some people with balance issues prefer the stability of a standard walker, as mobility aids with wheels make them feel vulnerable to falls. Ultimately, the choice is up to your specific needs and comfort levels.
Every rollator also has different options in terms of the features they offer. Below, we’ll outline a couple key features to consider when choosing a rollator. For a comprehensive comparison of Because rollator walkers, check out our rollator shopping guide.
Most rollator walkers have adjustable heights, so that you can lift or lower the handlebars for optimal height. These typically have a 4-6-inch variable. It’s also worth considering the seat height and making sure you can sit comfortably on the seat, with your feet flat on the floor. Since standard rollators are made for the “average” height, if you’re under 5’3” or over 6’, you may want to look into rollators designed specifically for short or tall people.
Handle brakes are a standard feature on rollator walkers, helping users come to a quick stop or gradually stop if they’ve picked up too much speed when walking. It’s a great safety mechanism to help safely maintain balance and speed while using.
As mentioned earlier, your weight is a consideration when picking out a rollator walker. For people under 300 pounds, a standard-weight rollator offers enough support. But for those between 300 and 500 pounds, you’ll want to look into a heavy duty rollator (also known as bariatric rollators) which features a wider frame and higher weight limit.
Many rollator models fold flat for easy storage and transportation. This is a nice feature for car and plane travel. This is becoming a pretty standard feature, even on more stylish models like our Pink Zebra Rollator, Heavy Duty Rollator, and our new Blue Aluminum Deluxe Rollator. In fact, all of the rollators offered through because are foldable!
Since standard rollators have four wheels that typically range from 6-8 inches in diameter, they’re ideal for indoor use and outdoor use. The size of the wheels allows for easy travel over uneven terrain like gravel, cobblestone, or pavers.
While a four-wheeled rollator is most common and the standard choice, three-wheeled options are available. They’re smaller and lighter than standard rollators, so they can fit in smaller spaces. They also have increased maneuverability and can make sharper turns. However, the design of a three-wheel rollator means it doesn’t offer a seat, so it’s not the best choice for those who experience fatigue when walking.
Find the best rollator for yourself or a loved one online at Because Market!