Step Back to Move Forward: 5 Health Benefits of Retrowalking

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Dive into the benefits of backward walking, a simple switch with profound impacts on balance, strength, calorie burn, and more.

In a fast-paced world where “forward” is the direction we’re told to look, a surprisingly simple exercise encourages us to do the opposite: walk backward. More than a fad, scientific evidence suggests it might be worth the awkward effort.

Retro walking, the practice of walking backward, revives an ancient technique with origins in China. Dr. Michael Mosley highlights its historical significance in a podcast, noting, “The Chinese have a saying that 100 steps backward are worth 1000 steps forward, and there might well be something to this.” suggesting potential depth to this practice.

The concept might sound like something out of a comedy sketch, yet it’s anything but a joke. Over a century ago, Patrick Harmon made headlines by walking backward from San Francisco to New York City, igniting widespread fascination.

Today, retro walking is stepping out of history books and into our daily fitness routines, endorsed by health aficionados and experts alike. Its appeal lies in its simplicity, accessibility, and efficacy.

Retro walking’s versatility allows for its practice in parks, living rooms, or treadmills, making it easily adaptable to various lifestyles. The only requirements are an openness to new experiences and, ideally, a companion to ensure safety.

5 Benefits of Retro Walking

1. Improve Balance

Retro walking emerges as a potent tool for balance improvement. Tracie Haines-Landram, a certified strength and conditioning specialist from BarBend, told The Epoch Times, “Walking backward challenges your proprioception and spatial awareness, which can enhance balance and stability.”

A small study corroborates this perspective, revealing that retro walking participants experienced significant gains in balance, step length, and walking speed. The study’s authors note, “Even though backward walking is not practiced in day-to-day life, it is effective in stimulating muscles of the knee joints and quadriceps in a more balanced manner.”

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Further support for retro walking comes from research published in Gait & Posture. A comprehensive meta-analysis of 11 studies indicated that backward walking enhances overall balance, improves one’s ability to stand on one leg, and increases walking speed. Specifically, retro walking lowered stability index scores, an important measure of balance ability.

2. Burn More Calories

Looking for a twist in your weight loss regimen? Consider simply reversing your direction. The Compendium of Physical Activities rates retro walking at 6.0 METs (metabolic equivalent of task), notably higher than the 3.8 METs for forward walking. This increased metabolic rate indicates that backward steps can intensify calorie burn, presenting a novel strategy for weight reduction.

Consider this—a person weighing 155 pounds burns approximately 140 calories during a 30-minute forward walk. By walking backward, this calorie expenditure escalates to about 223 calories—more than 80 additional calories consumed by this simple change in direction, providing a notable advantage for weight reduction efforts.

Jordan Duncan, a sports chiropractor and owner of Silverdale Sport and Spine, explains to The Epoch Times, “When we walk backward, our bodies aren’t able to store and release energy to the extent that we do when walking forward, which makes it a great way to burn calories.”

Supporting evidence comes from a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, where young women engaging in six weeks of backward walking and running witnessed considerable weight loss. Results showed a 2.4 percent decrease in body fat and a nearly 20 percent reduction in skinfold measurements, underscoring the effectiveness of retro walking in weight management strategies.

3. Strengthen Muscles

Retro walking does more than challenge our sense of direction—it actively engages and strengthens muscles in a way forward walking cannot. By reversing our direction, we activate and challenge the calves, hamstrings, glutes, and core in ways forward walking can’t match. The backward motion demands more from our bodies, turning a simple stroll into a full-on lower body and core workout.

Janet Dufek, a renowned biomechanist and professor of kinesiology and nutrition sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, expanded upon this in a conversation with The Epoch Times. She explained, “The agonist muscles become antagonists and vice versa.” This intriguing shift means that during this unconventional activity, the roles of our muscles are reversed—for instance, the usually dominant quadriceps take a backseat, allowing the hamstrings to lead the way.

This reversal puts muscles that don’t take the lead into a primary role, challenging them in new and beneficial ways. Ms. Dufek further elaborates, “Backward walking is not a 100 percent mirrored image of forward walking, and that’s because of the foot strike pattern. Our knee joints flex very well but don’t hyperextend so great. So, you can’t totally reverse.”

Ms. Dufek’s insights shed light on the unique advantages of backward walking—it prompts our muscles to undertake tasks they’re not usually tasked with. This offers a fresh approach to our exercise routines and makes backward walking an effective way to enhance muscular function and overall physical fitness.

4. Reduce Knee Pain

For knee rehabilitation, backward walking is becoming a go-to recommendation by medical professionals. Its effectiveness in aiding recovery is especially noted in knee osteoarthritis (OA) and post-knee replacement therapy cases.

2021 research highlights the benefits for knee OA patients, including significant pain relief, improved physical function, and increased stability, all resulting from adding backward walking to their exercise regimen. This practice exerts a softer impact on the knees than traditional forward walking, reducing stress on the medial compartment of the knee and encouraging a fuller range of motion. As a result, it bolsters the muscles around the knee, providing essential support and enhancing joint stability.

5. Challenge the Brain

Stepping backward isn’t just a physical challenge—it’s a mental workout that could rewire the brain. Engaging in this reverse navigation compels our brains to adjust and forge new neural connections, enhancing mental alertness and improving cognitive capabilities.

Cognitive involvement through backward walking activates the brain distinctively, similar to mastering a new skill. Research indicates that such activity affects the prefrontal cortex—central to emotion and problem-solving—fostering a more agile and efficient brain. This adaptability could lead to better memory, heightened spatial awareness, and enhanced problem-solving skills.
Evidence of these benefits was seen in a Dutch study, where participants performed the Stroop test while moving in different directions. Those walking backward showed the quickest responses, suggesting that engaging in this atypical activity sharpens cognitive processing speed.

Backward Bound: Quick Tips for Retro Walking

Embracing retro walking as part of your fitness routine can add a refreshing twist to your workouts, challenging your body and mind in new ways. “Initially, walking backward is pretty inefficient,” Ms. Dufek explained. However, with practice, it can become an efficient way to exercise. Here’s how you can seamlessly integrate this backward step into your daily life:

1. Begin Cautiously

Begin with brief sessions in obstacle-free zones. Ms. Dufek recommends starting on a treadmill for its safety features, including a shut-off switch. Treadmills also offer handrails for balance as you adjust to walking backward, providing confidence to safely increase your pace. Over time, try to reduce your reliance on the rails to improve your balance and mobility.

2. Select Appropriate Footwear

Opt for shoes that offer comfort and support, crucial for maintaining balance and preventing falls. When outdoors, wearing bright or reflective attire increases visibility to others.

3. Partner Up

Walking with a friend can make retro walking more enjoyable and safer. Your partner can act as a spotter, helping you navigate and avoid obstacles.

4. Incorporate Intervals

Mix retro walking with forward walking in your routine. “Incorporating intervals of backward and forward walking can maximize the benefits and keep the workout engaging, especially when done with a friend,” suggests Ms. Dufek.

5. Listen to Your Body

Be mindful of your body’s reactions to retro walking. Should you experience discomfort beyond normal muscle soreness, pause your activity and, if needed, seek advice from a medical professional.

Adhering to these guidelines can make retro walking a rewarding component of your fitness routine, delivering advantages that surpass those of traditional exercises.

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