Walking backwards: It’s great for back pain, stability and balance

When walking to the shops or for the sake of our health, our brains are kept busy in ways that we don’t realise – and they are all to do with staying upright, maintaining balance and an awareness of our bodies in space as we navigate the physical world.

Most of the time we’re on auto-pilot and occupied with thoughts that have nothing to do with the coordinated mechanics of getting where we want to go.

It’s just walking – an activity that happens to be one of our best medicines. See here, here and here.

A change in direction is great for arthritis

An interesting article from The Conversation asks an interesting question: “But what happens if we stop walking on auto-pilot and start challenging our brains and bodies by walking backwards?”

Part of the answer lies in old people who, you might notice, sometimes choose to walk backwards when navigating short distances in the home.

They do this because walking backwards is less stressful on the knees, and therefore less painful.

This is relevant to people of all ages, especially those with osteoarthritis (OA) in the knees.

What’s the evidence?

A 2019 study found that OA patients who walked backwards for 10 minutes, three days a week, for six weeks, enjoyed a “greater reduction in pain and functional disability and improved quadriceps muscle strength and performance”.

This was in comparison to a group of patients who walked forwards (10 minutes, three times a week) and a control group who received physiotherapy only.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Biomechanics found that backward-running reduced anterior knee pain compared to forward running.

Improved stability and balance

The author of The Conversation piece is Jack McNamara, a lecturer in Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of East London. He writes:

“When we walk backwards, it takes longer for our brains to process the extra demands of coordinating these systems. However, this increased level of challenge brings with it increased health benefits.”

These include improving stability, balance and improving our forward gait (how we walk normally).

Mr McNamara advises: “Walking backwards causes us to take shorter, more frequent steps, leading to improved muscular endurance for the muscles of the lower legs while reducing the burden on our joints,”.

Walking backwards gives a workout to our more neglected muscles.

He said that adding changes in incline or decline (which can be done in a controlled way using a treadmill) can also “alter the range of motion for joints and muscles, offering pain relief for conditions such as plantar fasciitis – one of the most common causes of heel pain”.

The postural changes brought about by walking backwards, he writes, use “more of the muscles supporting our lumbar spine – suggesting backwards walking could be a particularly beneficial exercise for people with chronic lower back pain”.

How to go about it

If you regularly go to the gym, it’s easy. Carefully set yourself up on a treadmill set on a low speed at first. Maybe two kilometres an hour to start with. Here’s how to do it.

As Mr McNamara advises: “When we become confident with travelling backwards, progressing to running can enhance the demands further.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

If you don’t have a treadmill, then clear some space at home. An entrance hall in a house is a good place to start.

You don’t need to have a great distance to cover.

Treat it like lifting weights

You’re better off treating backward-walking in the same way you do weights, by being mindful of your movements.

As Mr McNamara advises: “Focus on multiple sets rather than prolonged distances.”

He suggests you “resist the urge to contort your body and look over your shoulder. Keep your head and chest upright while reaching back with your big toe for each step, rolling through the foot from toe to heel”.

But again, start off slowly. You’ll still get the significant muscular benefits for the simple reason you’re working your legs differently.

If you’re feeling ambitious and want to build a more demanding workout from walking backwards, Mr McNamara suggests pulling weights, such as a car tyre or makeshift sledge.

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