It is well known that walking can be our best exercise routine. It doesn’t cost anything except a decent pair of shoes and some time. You don’t need to join a gym and there’s no special equipment required. And walking is something we do every day, all the time, anyway.
Getting from the bedroom to the kitchen or from a parking lot to a store involves something so automatic that we often don’t think about it unless on a special hike or over different terrain. (Think snow and sleet!)
Our brains are rarely challenged but still our bodies get a pretty good workout. We feel it’s just not complicated, and we reap great health benefits from a walking exercise regimen. Or maybe it is a bit more complicated than we realize. Staying upright requires coordination between three systems: our visual (what we see), our vestibular (movement), and our proprioceptive (the awareness of where we are in the environment). Most of us walk without the appreciation for, or full understanding of, how we are doing it.
But could we make it a better workout for both body and brain? Walking backward has been shown to multiply the health benefits of walking. When we walk backward, we actually have to think about balance and orientation as to where we are in the environment (whether indoors or out).
The journal Clinical Rehabilitation published a 2019 study looking at the effectiveness of backward walking in the treatment of people with walking impairments related to neurological and musculoskeletal disorders. It concluded that backward walking along with regular physical therapy was clinically effective in improving the stability and balance in people with knee osteoarthritis.
Walking backward forces us to take shorter and more frequents steps. This leads to improved muscular endurance in the muscles in our legs and lessens the burden on our joints. And adding an up or downhill to the walk can relieve the heel pain of plantar fasciitis.
We have a different posture when walking backward and we use more of those muscles that support our lumbar spine. This could be great exercise for people suffering from chronic lower back pain. The Journal of Chiropractic Medicine in 2019 published research that showed an increased activation of paraspinal muscles and aerobic movement with backward walking. The international Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a study showing that walking backward on a treadmill improved the walking ability of people with chronic stroke disorder.
Backward walking has benefits aside from improving clinical symptoms. Maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall good health and walking backward consumes 40% more energy than forward walking. In 2005, there was a research study that showed a reduction in body fat in young women after a backward walking and running training program (International Journal of Sports Medicine, April 2005). Running backward heightens those benefits even more. There are fewer running injuries and greater economy of movement due to the increased strength of the muscles that straighten the knee. This also places a heavier demand on the heart and lungs for more aerobic benefit.
Walking backward sounds simple but it is not that easy. You must have a heightened awareness of your surroundings to avoid tripping or crashing into some obstacle behind you. This is a learned skill that comes with practice. Starting indoors is a good idea where you know most of the landmarks.
The technique is look straight ahead holding your head and chest upright. Reach back with your big toe for each step, landing on your heel. Using a treadmill allows for speed control and adjusting the inclines but holding the handrails is always a good idea. Loading a sledge and dragging it backward is also good exercise with a moderately low risk of injury. Legs become stronger and even with weights a little as 10% of body weight can lead to faster sprint times for those who are enjoy running.
Walking is excellent exercise regardless of what direction you are headed!
Mia Smitt is a longtime nurse practitioner. She writes a regular column for Tucson Local Media.