Backward Walking: What Are the Benefits?

Do you want to burn extra calories, work on motor coordination and challenge your balance?  Is your knee hurting as you walk up the hill? Turn around and take a part of your walk backwards.  It’s called retro-walking.

Walking in reverse with balance and control comes in handy many times a day.   Where does this happen?

  • As you take a step back to open the front door.
  • Forgot your keys in the house?  You will probably place one foot back while changing direction.
  • During a two person furniture lift, you’re the lucky one who gets to walk backwards!
  • Moving in a crowded kitchen, you back up to let your daughter squeeze by.
  • At the gallery you see a beautiful painting and take a few steps back to take it in.
  • On the playground you balance with a backward stepping response as your friend races by.  This time, you don’t fall.
  • On the soccer field you run in reverse to prevent the other team from scoring.

Clearly, the ability to back up is critical to daily function.  Some people take it further and train by walking in reverse.  Retro walking, as this is known,  differs from forward walking in several respects: reduced ground reaction forces, changed muscle kinematics, and challenged balance.  Many studies come out of Asia, where it is a common exercise routine.

Here is what research has shown with respect to retro walking in different populations:

  • Improvement in balance and motor control in school aged boys.  (Hao, 2011)
  • There is a greater dorsiflexion demand in retro-walking.  (Cadinez-Sanchez, 2015)
  • The hips stay more flexed in retro-walking than forward walking  (Cadinez-Sanchez, 2015) (Makino, 2017)
  • The knee stays more flexed in retro-walking than forward walking (Makino, 2017)
  • walking speed, step length, and cadence are lower in backward walking (Makino, 2015)
  • VO2 max and heart rate increase with treadmill retro walking and increase anaerobic endurance. This is convenient if you have a short time to exercise. (Hooper, 2004),  (Flynn, 1994)
  • Retro walking in addition to conservative treatment is effective in decreasing disability in patients with knee osteoarthritis. (Gondhalekar, 2013)
  • Asymmetries in gait decrease (Yang, 2005)
  • Backward walking requires conscious hip extension (Makino, 2017)

If you are not able to retro walk for a long distance, try the few controlled steps needed to turn around, step back and take a seat.  Or, try a few backward steps as part of an obstacle course.  This movement involves motor planning, awareness of the space behind, and controlled stepping.  If you have fear of falling, try retro walking  laps in a safe pool environment.  The buoyancy of the water will help.

If nothing else is convincing, retro walking has been described as a neurobic activity, or something that is novel, engaging and challenges your brain, making new neural connections.

Retro walking may seem like a simple exercise.  Perhaps too simple to be good therapy, but after researching it a bit further, I am convinced that it is well worth the time.  It’s an easy home program for children.  See how it goes in your next session.  Just make sure you look for potholes or furniture in your path before trying!

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