One of the challenges with staying fit, even if you exercise regularly, is avoiding the “plateaus” that occur as your muscles adapt to your workouts.
It takes just six to eight weeks for your body to adapt to your exercise routine, according to the American Council on Exercise,1 which means you need to change up your program at least every couple of months or your fitness gains will level off.
If you’re at a loss for a new activity to try, consider walking backwards. Though it might sound a bit strange, it can be incredibly beneficial.
The Many Benefits of Walking Backwards
Backward walking, also known as retro walking, is said to have originated in ancient China, where it was practiced for good health. In the modern world, it’s become quite the rage in Japan, China and parts of Europe, where people use it to build muscle, improve sports performance, promote balance and more.
For starters, when you walk backwards, it puts less strain and requires less range of motion from your knee joints, making it ideal for people who have knee problems or injuries. Also, because backward walking eliminates the typical heel-strike to the ground (the toe contacts the ground first), it can lead to changes in pelvis alignment that help open up the facet joints in your spine, potentially alleviating pressure that may cause low back pain in some people.2
Not to mention, walking backwards gives you a chance to work out all of those muscles in your legs, such as your quadriceps and calves, which take a backseat to your hamstrings and glutes during regular walking. It also works out your hamstrings in a different way, and walking backwards for just 10-15 minutes, four days a week for four weeks has been shown to increase flexibility in your hamstrings.3
A More Intense, Comprehensive Workout in Less Time
Interestingly, when you walk backwards, your heart rate tends to rise higher than it does when walking forward at the same pace, which suggests you can get greater cardiovascular and calorie-burning benefits in a shorter period of time. In one study, women who underwent a six-week backward run/walk training program had a significant decrease in body fat as well as improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness at the end of the study.4
There appear to be benefits for your brain, too. Researchers found that when you walk backwards, it sharpens your thinking skills and enhances cognitive control.5 This may be because even though backward walking is a physical activity, it’s also a “neurobic” activity, meaning it requires brain activity that may help you stay mentally sharp. Plus, since it puts your senses into overdrive as you move in an unfamiliar way, it is also known to enhance vision as well.
You Can Try Backward Running, Too
Many of the same benefits from backward walking extend to backward running. This activity requires close to 30 percent more energy than running forward at the same pace,6 which means it burns more calories. This is partly because it reverses the typical “soft takeoff” (when muscle-tendon units shorten) and “hard landing” (when muscle-tendon units are stretched) that is found in forward running, which requires greater step frequency and energy expenditure..
Further, because backward running puts far less impact on your knees, this activity is ideal if you ordinarily have knee pain or problems. In fact, researchers have called backward running a safer form of training that can actually improve your forward running skills as well:7
“As in a catapult, muscle-tendon units are stretched more slowly during the brake at the beginning of stance and shorten more rapidly during the push at the end of stance. We suggest that the catapult-like mechanism of backward running, although requiring greater energy expenditure and not providing a smoother ride, may allow a safer stretch-shorten cycle of muscle-tendon units.”
As many of you know I was a runner for 43 years before I gave it up completely. I even ran a 2:50 marathon in 1982 during my prime. One of the strategies I used back then was backward running, so I have some experience with it. If you decide to try this very useful exercise I would warn you of two points.
First, be very cautious as it is easy to trip and fall backwards, or to run into someone as obviously you don’t have eyes in the back of your head. And if you twist your head to constantly look where you are going this could actually result in some structural problems. Secondly, if you run backward for any length of time you will severely wear out your shoes, as you are landing on places that are not designed to take high amounts of wear – so I would suggest using an older pair of shoes that you don’t mind ruining.
Special Considerations for Backward Walking and Running
Obviously, when you walk backward one of the biggest risks is falling or tripping over potholes, parked cars, signs and other obstacles. It’s best to start out this activity in a secure location, such as on a (non-busy) track or in an open field. If you decided to walk outdoors elsewhere, consider taking a buddy with you who will walk forward and alert you to any upcoming dangers.
You can also try backward walking on a treadmill (being careful to start slow to avoid tripping) or use a backward motion when using an elliptical machine. Another consideration is that your shoes will get more wear when you walk backward, so if you do it often you may need to replace them more often.
More Tips for Changing Up Your Exercise Routine
To truly optimize your health, you’ll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a variety of exercises. Without variety, your body will quickly adapt. I strongly recommend incorporating the following types of exercises to create a well-rounded fitness program suitable to your current level of fitness. You can also find customized fitness programs for the beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels here.
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods, such as Peak Fitness.
- Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you’re really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program.
You can also “up” the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
You need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to recover, repair and rebuild.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.
Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching or AIS, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body’s natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints.
This technique also allows your body to help repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like thePower Plate to help you stretch.
Sources and References
- Journal of Experimental Biology January 1, 2012; 215(Pt 1):75-84.
- Journal of Exercise Physiology April 2011, Volume 14, Number 2
- NYTimes.com December 6, 2012
- 1 American Council on Exercise, Benefits of varying your workout routine
- 2 Journal of Exercise Physiology April 2011, Volume 14, Number 2
- 3 International Journal of Exercise Science 2011, Volume 4, Issue 3, Article 4
- 4 International Journal of Sports Medicine 2005, vol. 26, no3, pp. 214-219
- 5 Psychol Sci. 2009 May;20(5):549-50.
- 6 Proc Biol Sci. 2011 Feb 7;278(1704):339-46. Epub 2010 Aug 18.
- 7 J Exp Biol. 2012 Jan 1;215(Pt 1):75-84.