Stimulate Your Fitness IQ By Walking Backward

by Joseph Mercola

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      Story at-a-glance

  • Walking backwards helps you to use muscles and movements that you probably rarely use, making it an ideal way to change up your exercise routine for greater fitness gains.
  • When you walk backwards, it puts less strain and requires less range of motion from your knee joints, which is useful for people with knee problems or injuries.
  • Backward walking may help relieve lower back pain, improve hamstring flexibility, burn more fat and calories in less time than traditional walking, improve balance and even sharpen your thinking skills and vision.
  • When walking backwards, do so in a safe location, such as on a track, to avoid falling over obstacles in your path; you can also take a buddy with you to act as your u201Ceyesu201D and alert you to any upcoming dangers.

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.

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