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The Surprising Health Benefits Of Walking Backward

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Step into any gym, and you might spot individuals engaging in unique exercises like walking backward on a treadmill or pedaling in reverse on an elliptical machine. Sometimes that’s because they don’t know how to use the machines properly, other times, they’re doing physical therapy. However, for an increasing number of gym goers, it’s for the surprising and unusual health benefits of backward motion. 

Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist at Lux Physical Therapy and Functional Medicine in New York City, emphasizes the benefits of incorporating backward motion into daily activities. With the sedentary lifestyle prevalent today, coupled with a lack of diverse movements, introducing backward exercises can be a positive addition.

Numerous studies highlight the advantages of retro walking, commonly known as walking backward. Participants in a March 2021 study who walked backward on a treadmill for 30 minutes over four weeks experienced improvements in balance, walking pace, and cardiopulmonary fitness. Similarly, a clinical trial published in April 2005 demonstrated that a group of women reduced body fat and enhanced cardiorespiratory fitness through a six-week program of backward running and walking.

Research also suggests that backward motion may be beneficial for individuals dealing with knee osteoarthritis, and chronic back pain, and those looking to improve gait and balance. Beyond physical benefits, retro walking has been associated with mental sharpness and mindfulness, making it particularly advantageous for older adults, as indicated by a 2021 study involving chronic stroke patients.

The effectiveness of backward motion lies in the engagement of different muscle groups. According to Landry Estes, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, walking backward reverses the dominant movements of forward walking, activating the quads and promoting knee extensions.

Breaking away from the typical sagittal plane movements (forward and backward motion) is crucial for preventing muscle and joint tightness. Wickham emphasizes the importance of incorporating varied movements into daily activities or gym routines to prevent joint wear and tear and reduce the risk of pain and injury.

To initiate a backward-walking routine, experts recommend starting slowly, perhaps for five minutes several times a week. Whether walking backward on a treadmill or outdoors, gradually increasing the duration and intensity is key to adapting to the motion. Additionally, experts suggest trying more challenging moves, such as walking backward in a squat, as your body becomes accustomed to the exercise.

While backward walking is not a new concept and has historical roots in practices like retro walking in China, it is gaining recognition for its potential health benefits. Whether indoors or outdoors, on a treadmill or in a park, incorporating backward motion can be a valuable addition to a well-rounded fitness routine.

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