Secret cure-all? Walking backwards boasts surprising number of health benefits

By Jack McNamara, University of East London

Walking doesn’t require any special equipment or gym memberships, and best of all, it’s completely free. For most of us, walking is something we do automatically. It doesn’t require conscious effort, so many of us fail to remember the benefits of walking for health. But what happens if we stop walking on auto-pilot and start challenging our brains and bodies by walking backwards? Not only does this change of direction demand more of our attention, but it may also bring additional health benefits.

Physical activity doesn’t need to be complicated. Whether you’re regularly active or not, even a brisk ten-minute daily walk can deliver a host of health benefits and can count towards the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week.

Yet walking is more complicated than many of us realise. Remaining upright requires coordination between our visual, vestibular (sensations linked to movements such as twisting, spinning or moving fast) and proprioceptive (awareness of where our bodies are in space) systems. When we walk backwards, it takes longer for our brains to process the extra demands of coordinating these systems. However, this increased level of challenge brings with it increased health benefits.

One of the most well-studied benefits of walking backwards is improving stability and balance. Walking backwards can improve forward gait (how a person walks) and balance for healthy adults and those with knee osteoarthritis. Walking backwards causes us to take shorter, more frequent steps, leading to improved muscular endurance for the muscles of the lower legs while reducing the burden on our joints.

Adding changes in incline or decline can also alter the range of motion for joints and muscles, offering pain relief for conditions such as plantar fasciitis – one of the most common causes of heel pain.

The postural changes brought about by walking backwards also use more of the muscles supporting our lumbar spine – suggesting backwards walking could be a particularly beneficial exercise for people with chronic lower back pain.

Walking backwards has even been used to identify and treat balance and walking speed in patients with neurological conditions or following chronic stroke.

But the benefits of changing direction aren’t just therapeutic – an interest in backwards movement has led researchers to discover various other benefits.

While normal walking can help us maintain a healthy weight, walking backwards may be even more effective. Energy expenditure when walking backwards is almost 40% higher than walking at the same speed forwards (6.0 Mets versus 4.3 Mets – one metabolic equivalent (Met) is the amount of oxygen consumed while sitting at rest), with one study showing reductions in body fat for women who completed a six-week backwards walk or run training programme.

When we become confident with travelling backwards, progressing to running can enhance the demands further. While often studied as a rehabilitation tool, backward running increases the strength of crucial muscles involved with straightening the knee, which not only carries over to injury prevention but also our ability to generate power and athletic performance.

Sustained backward running decreases the energy we expend when we run forwards. These improvements in running economy are even beneficial for experienced runners with an already economical running technique.

If walking backwards seems too easy, but space limitations affect your ability to run backwards, another way to increase the challenge further is to start dragging weights. Increasing the overall load increases the recruitment of the knee extensor muscles while placing heavy demands on your heart and lungs in a short space of time.

Loading a sledge and dragging it backwards carries a low risk of injury, as the most likely outcome if we’re too tired is that the sledge won’t move. But with lighter weights, this kind of exercise can produce an appropriate level of resistance to stimulate significant improvements in lower limb power, with dragging weights as little as 10% of total body weight leading to improved sprint times among young athletes.

How to get started

Walking backwards is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So, how can you add walking backwards into your exercise regimen?

When walking backwards, we’re more likely to miss obstacles and hazards that we could crash into or fall over, so in the interest of safety, it’s best to start indoors where you won’t crash into someone or outside in a flat, open area.

Resist the urge to contort your body and look over your shoulder. Keep your head and chest upright while reaching back with your big toe for each step, rolling through the foot from toe to heel.

Once you become more confident walking backwards, you can begin to speed things up and even transition to a treadmill, being sure to use the guide rails when necessary. If using weights, start light. Focus on multiple sets rather than prolonged distances, and remember to maintain the integrity of your technique over no more than a 20-metre distance to begin with.

Jack McNamara is a Lecturer in Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of East London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. How stupid. In order to walk without tripping or going off course, you have to able to see where you are going. Any perceived benefit is offset by the potential for injury from not being able to see where you are going.

    1. I have to agree especially if you are Old and walking to gain better health,Now a twirl around when walking once or twice when walking would be helpful for balancing abilities.

  2. It’s actually easier for me to walk backwards up the steep hill I live on. Feels like different muscle groups are exercised during the process & it feels good to strengthen them in this way.

  3. Running backwards. This may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. I think riding a motorcycle backwards on the highway also has some health benefits. The author should check that out.

    1. mate.i know you’ve never tried it with that opinion of yours.
      its the worlds best exercise.
      use you’re right brain.

  4. Try raking the lawn or raking leaves. It’s naturally a backwards-walking activity with additional load from the rake. Don’t use an obnoxious (loud!) blower unless the job is spectacularly big. I have 0.8 miles of trails I rake by hand as well as two small lawns and a large driveway (I sweep backwards too).

  5. For very short periods of time, it may be somewhat beneficial but like everything else, it has its drawbacks so be very careful

  6. A few years ago I had to undergo physical therapy for achilles tendonopathy resultant from not proper stretching before running. The therapist would have me walk backwards on a treadmill for 5 minutes to warm up my tendons and muscles in my legs and feet before therapy. After healing from that injury, I have incorporated 5-10 minutes of walking backwards before any running. I’ve not had any more injuries since. It really helps you to stay loose. I am a firm believer.

    1. Thx for this comment. I’ve done it on my treadmill out of curiosity, but after reading this article AND your comment, I think I want to permanently introduce to my treadmill routine.

  7. Those of us that study the areas of physical therapy and personal training know the positive effects that backward walking and sled pulling/pushing have on both ourselves and our clients! Mic drop!

  8. mate.i know you’ve never tried it with that opinion of yours.
    its the worlds best exercise.
    use you’re right brain.

  9. When I was playing adult co-ed over 30 soccer I improvised a training regimen that on rainy days included walking up and down the concrete ramps at the end of the subdivision drainage ditch. Forward, backward and sidestepping uphill, downhill, laterally and diagonally. A neighbor saw me walking back home one day and asked if I had been lifting weights. Players on my team noticed the improvement on the field accelerating, turning and stopping. It was really quite remarkable. The slope of 30 to 40 degrees was what made the difference and it was low impact.

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