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Why you need to walk backwards to increase your fitness

If you never thought that walking or running backwards is something you should try for fitness gains, then you need to read this

Walking or running backwards gives you plenty of health benefits.
Walking or running backwards gives you plenty of health benefits. (Istockphoto)

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As fitness science has evolved, it increasingly seems that the best way to approach an exercise routine is to see how functional it is in real life. Learning how to do a proper deadlift can teach you how to set your body when you pick something up from the floor; an overhead shoulder press technique will surely help you lift a bag into the overhead bin in an aeroplane; and building a decent core will help you brace your body for various challenges. 

Which brings us to some of the moves which we simply don’t perform in daily life: like walking or running backwards. It is mostly difficult for the mind to accept such movement because human bodies are built for mostly forward motion. So when I saw a video asking people to walk backwards for five minutes during their cardio routine, the first question that came to me was “why”? 

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The answer is that not all training can be limited to basic functional activity like getting up or sitting down safely. Some exercises exist purely to maintain the body’s ability to divide the load across muscles. And for that, one must be able to teach the body new moves. 

“Consider how when the quadriceps are working, so are the hamstrings. With every related movement, there is an opposite muscle working. When over a period of time you keep moving only forward, the body has to learn how to handle certain loads when it is not in its usual motion (which is forward),” says Aaron Rodrigues, who is a physiotherapist with the Dempo Sporting Club in Goa. 

Rodrigues uses a scientific term for this, called ‘proprioception’. In the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience (2009), the term is defined as: “[Proprioception] is the sense that lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of parts of the body. It encompasses a complex of sensations, including perception of joint position and movement, muscle force, and effort… [it] enables us to judge limb movements and positions, force, heaviness, stiffness, and viscosity.” Proprioception also helps the body “locate external objects relative to the body” and “is closely tied to the control of movement”, it says.

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If you notice warm-up shots before matches across sport, running backwards and side-to-side are always part of the drills. Even sprinters will make backwards running part of their training. This is because running in different planes of motion is part of an athlete’s skillset. But even 2-5 minutes of walking backwards is enough and important for those who are not professional sportspersons. 

“I would say start with 100-200mts of backwards walking, on a road, or at home, before taking it to the treadmill. It is a good starting point, and there is no need to risk imbalance and a fall,” says Rodrigues. I tried walking backwards on a treadmill at a pre-set speed of 5. I had to reduce it to 4-4.5 because the sensation is different and there is no shame in holding the handrails alongside the treadmill. But the overarching advantage of backwards walking is also to strengthen the back of the knee, which we don’t tend to focus on. 

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“Walking or running backwards will help you to be injury free. We work on the anterior cruciate ligaments and the medial ligaments in the knee but there is hardly any work done for the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). This exercise will work for that, and even for the ankle ligaments,” says Rodrigues.

A Healthline article titled Walking Backward: The Mind And Body Benefits quotes two studies which prove that “a combination of backward running and walking may improve cardiorespiratory fitness and change body composition.” This is because of the fact that the body is less familiar with this move, and this leads to a more intense workout in a shorter period of time.

There are mental benefits of doing this as well, including, as the article states, how it “puts senses into overdrive, improving vision.” In my experiments with walking backwards, it was the mind that was more engaged in making sure the body does not fall or feel odd that was the foremost feeling. It also remarkably expends 40 percent more energy than walking at the same speed forwards, and helps maintain the equilibrium of the body. 

So start slow, but make sure you walk backwards for even a couple of minutes on your workout days, while increasing the amount of time or speed over weeks and months to see the difference.

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