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Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Walking Backwards Can Get You Ahead

Retro walking benefits knees, lower back, balance, cognition and so much more for seniors.

Have you ever seen anyone walking backwards on your gym track, or pedaling an elliptical bike in reverse? Did you wonder why they would want to? Turns out there are a host of good reasons to put your legs in reverse. 

“I think it’s amazing to add in some backwards motion to your day,” said Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist at Lux Physical Therapy and Functional Medicine in New York City. “People are sitting way too much today, plus they lack varied movement.”

Multiple Benefits of Moving in Reverse

People with knee osteoarthritis and chronic back pain can benefit from the backward motion.  “When you’re propelling yourself forward, that’s a hamstring-dominant movement,” says Landry Estes, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in College Station, Texas. “If you’re walking backwards, it’s a role reversal, where your quads are firing and you’re doing knee extensions.” Seniors with sore knees may find walking backward is less painful: one study found backward running reduced anterior knee pain. 

8 Benefits of Walking Backwards

  1. Increases flexibility.
  2. Burns calories.
  3. Improves balance.
  4. Builds muscle strength.
  5. Increases cardiorespiratory fitness.
  6. Challenges your brain.
  7. Reduces knee pain.
In addition, you’ll improve your gait, balance, and cognition. Because the body and brain are not used to going backward, your brain has to stay more engaged. Older adults may benefit the most from this type of exercise. A 2021 study that followed stroke patients found walking backward on a treadmill improved their balance, walking speed and cardiopulmonary fitness. Walking backward has also been found to prevent falls downstairs. 

“The body adapts to the positions and movements and postures you do most often,” says Estes. “That can lead to tight muscles and joints, which leads to joint compensation, which leads to joint wear and tear, then pain and injury. The more we can add varied movement into our day-to-day activities or in the gym, it’s so much more beneficial for the body.”

Brain Benefits

Retro walking may even sharpen your mind and help you become more aware, as your brain needs to be more alert when moving in this novel fashion. For this reason, plus the fact that backward motion helps with balance, older adults may especially benefit from incorporating some backward strolls into their routine, as the 2021 study of patients with chronic stroke indicates. 

Backward walkers will experience sharper senses, including vision and enhanced cognitive control. It can also help with body awareness and coordination. As with any exercise, retro walking will boost your mood and help with sleep. 

Getting Started

Take it slowly when you’re beginning to put backward movement into your routine. You can do five-minute stints around the house, or add them into a forward-facing walking routine on a track or a treadmill. Just remember to bring down the speed and concentrate on each step. Your pace can increase as you get used to the movement. 

If you’re walking on a track or outside, it can help to have a partner walk forward beside you to watch for obstacles and other people. You might want to try an indoor or outdoor track. Many high schools have tracks that are available for public use on the weekend or in the evening. A swimming pool can also offer a safe environment for trying out retro walking. 

You might even choose to enter a backward-facing contest. Loren Zitomersky ran the Boston Marathon backward in 2018 to raise money for epilepsy research. American Plennie L. Wingo walked backward for 8,000 miles from Santa Monica to Istanbul in the Great Depression, using a pair of reverse-looking mirrored glasses and setting the Guiness Record for reverse pedestrianism in the process. 

Backward walking can add a new element to your routine and offer a fresh take on exercise. Your muscles and mind will be tested as they adapt to new movement. Retro walking for older adults can perk up your workout routine while improving your strength and balance.