The OneStep Blog
From the therapist's corner

Walking backwards

Hila Glick, OneStep PT

It has been a tradition among the Chinese and Japanese for centuries.  Now some westerners have adopted the practice. No, we’re not talking about drinking tea – we’re talking about walking backwards.

Backward walking exercises, also called “retro-walking” has been a point of interest in many studies – and time and time again, it has been proven that this practice has so many benefits, and no adverse effects on the body. And yet, in most parks, at the gym or in rehab centers, we still see limited use of this technique. Maybe you’ve never walked backwards for exercise because it seems scary, or maybe because you had never heard of it as a helpful exercise! Let’s talk about the benefits and help you get started.

In an important meta-analysis review conducted a couple of years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa, it was found that backward walking is effective and clinically worthwhile in patients with knee osteoarthritis. The main benefits found were reducing pain, improving muscle strength and functional ability. This was also found for people suffering from back pain and also for stroke survivors with difficulties walking. All show that walking backwards has benefits on different aspects of the body and brain.

From a neuroscience perspective, this type of activity requires continuous awareness, not only because it’s new to the body and counterintuitive, but also due to the natural desire to understand where the foot is in space and to constantly watch the ground to prevent falling. Because of the extra work required to do it, walking backwards is likely to increase sensory responses, essential for signalling the brain regions controlling balance, coordination and symmetry.

As to the mechanical benefits, walking backwards can minimize the burden on joints and increase muscle strength in the lower limbs. It can strengthen less-used leg muscles (such as quadriceps and calves) and decrease lower back pain (by adding more flexibility to the pelvis alignment and reducing pressure on the spinal discs).

According to an ancient Chinese saying, it is thought that 100 steps taken backward walking is equivalent to 1,000 steps of conventional walking. It would probably be difficult to quantify that. But the idea behind it is that you can strengthen your heart, increase energy level and burn calories faster while walking backward than you would walking forward.

Give this a try the next time you are exercising! It does not require any special tools or equipment, and it’s safe if you follow some basic guidelines.

Here’s how you can get started: Find a place you can walk backwards for 20 meters/60 feet and make sure there are no obstacles on the way. You can also consider doing this with a friend or caretaker’s supervision. You can hold their hands and have them walk forward while you walk backwards (they will be your eyes essentially!)

If you are practicing indoors you can start by holding on to the wall. If you have access to a treadmill, you can start on a very low speed, while holding on.

Now that we know retro-walking has many physical and mental benefits, that no harm can be done, and that ancient Chinese tradition as well as modern research all advocate for this type of activity, give it a try! Spice up your training with a few minutes of backwards walking.  You can even record your walk on the OneStep app.