There’s been lots of good news for walkers recently. A study published last month found that over-60s who walked between 6000 and 9000 steps a day cut their risk of heart disease (including strokes and heart attacks) by 40-50 percent, when compared to a more typical 2000 steps a day. In fact this study found that for every additional 1000 steps walked, the risk fell still further. According to the author, Dr Amanda Paluch:
“There was no upper limit at which there was no additional benefit in our study. Each incremental increase was associated with lower heart disease risk in older adults.”
Which means that, whatever the quantity of your daily steps, adding a few more (and then a few more) will enhance your chances of ageing well.
Better still, this study showed no additional benefits to walking any faster than 100 steps a minute. So you don’t need to be breathlessly hot-footing it in order to reap the rewards. 100 steps a minute is a brisk pace but not particularly taxing for most of us. Try it for yourself – set your phone/timer for one minute and then count how many steps you manage before the timer goes. Incidentally, 1000 steps is about half a mile.
As readers will know, I’ve spent the last decade swapping out sedentary activities for walking activities – so my daily step count is reasonably high. But much of this walking is done on automatic pilot. Which means it’s benefiting my body but – unlike learning a dance routine – it’s not doing quite so much for my brain. So whenever I have the opportunity, I like to navigate with a map (I wrote about the benefits of map-reading here). But I also like to throw in a bit of daily backwards walking. I included a chapter (49) on reverse walking in 52 Ways to Walk, and many readers have since been kind enough to share their experiences with me. Most found it strange at first, but lots have learnt to love it. And, while interviewing me on the subject, Lauren Laverne pointed out that backwards walking is really big in Japan. So, yes, it’s officially ‘a thing’ now.
So why and how should we do it?
Let’s start with why.
Our brain has to work much harder when we’re walking in reverse, co-ordinating our vestibular, visual and proprioceptive systems. You simply cannot tune out when you’re unable to see where you’re going. This also makes backwards walking very ‘mindful’ – when we walk in reverse we’re fully engaged with what we’re doing. No daydreaming. No worrying. To use contemporary parlance, we are utterly ‘in the moment.’ For this reason, backward walking has also been found to increase our alertness and focus. Try doing a few minutes before you settle down to a mentally demanding task.
But it’s not just our brains that benefit. Studies show that walking backwards improves our stability and sense of balance. And because we walk with shorter steps, rolling backwards through the soles of our feet, our shin muscles strengthen but without impacting our knee joints so much – making backwards walking particularly good for those with knee osteoarthritis and knee injuries.
Our posture changes when we move in reverse. Our core muscles work harder to stabilise us, and this includes the muscles supporting our spine, perhaps explaining why lower back pain is improved in reverse walkers. When we go backwards up and down hill, not only is our brain engaged still further, but our muscles and joints have to shift yet again. It seems that conditions like plantar fasciitis respond well to these changes – when we walk backwards we land on the balls of our feet rather than heavily on our heels.
Walking backwards is also an effective fat burner, with sports scientists estimating that our energy expenditure is almost 40% higher when we walk backwards compared to forwards walking at the same speed. Caveat: it’s extremely hard to walk briskly backwards although the New Big Thing is – apparently – backwards running. Runners can read more here.
Finally, reverse walking can improve our gait – our walking style – meaning, perversely, that by walking backwards every now and then we can walk forwards with greater elegance. People with impaired movement often learn to walk again by backwards strolling. I found that the tendency to slump when walking forwards was entirely eradicated when walking backwards.
How to start
I started on a flat stretch of uninhabited track that I knew very well. And I’d urge you to find somewhere similar if possible. Following a track means less meandering, but open trackless land would be fine too. You don’t want to be fretting about bumping into things – or people. And you don’t want to be anywhere near moving vehicles, animals, water, or unexpected holes etc. So choose your area carefully. And always start slowly.
You’ll feel stupid, so go out when there’s no one around to stare/laugh (early mornings are good).
Alternatively find an indoor corridor (or stretch of garden) and start there. You can even do it on a walking machine set to slow and using the handrails to start (yes, I’ve done that too).
At first you’ll want to look over your shoulder. Try not to, as this merely distorts your upper body.
Once your posture is aligned (just straighten up, shoulders back), step backwards landing on your toes and rolling through the sole of your foot, toe to heel.
As it feels more familiar, pick up your pace. Try an incline, or (with care and caution) the stairs.
Think about what your body is doing. You’ll find that reverse walking feels quite different. You’ll be acutely aware of the space you’re moving through and how it feels. With vision rendered obsolete, you’ll find other senses rushing in to help you, particularly your proprioceptive sense (sometimes called our sixth sense) which is why reverse walking is so good for balance.
As I say in Week 49 of 52 Ways: ‘When we walk forwards we can forget our body and exist solely in our mind. But when we walk backwards, we abandon the mind and exist solely in the body.’
Have a go and let us know how you get on in the Comment box. If you’re already a regular backwards walker, has it helped with anything?
To celebrate its imminent first anniversary and a new edition, I’ll be giving away a few copies of 52 Ways to Walk in the next few weeks. Pop over to Instagram for your chance to win a copy. There’ll be give-aways at @agewellproject and at @annabelabbs. Or order a copy from your bookshop.
And do check our earlier posts on walking to improve mood here and why we should consider walking with poles here and walking backwards to improve memory here, and the miraculous benefits of walking in general here.
Happy walking – whichever way you choose!
Katharine E Sinnett says
Is there a higher rate of falls with walking backwards than walking forwards?
Annabel Streets says
Good question. Not that it would appear. The thing is you walk very carefully backwards – and I’m not sure many of us walk carefully when we’re on automatic pilot. I’ve yet to fall over going backwards – touch wood!
Carolyn Moulton says
My dad was not a football fan at all, but whenever there was a match on tv he’d spend the whole time admiring the ref’s ability to run backwards and say what a difficult thing it was to do. Perhaps refs would make an interesting study.
Annabel Streets says
What a good idea! Actually my book chapter includes an account of a man who attempted to walk the world backwards nearly 100 years ago. He lived well into his 90s! So who knows!
Thank you for sharing! I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and will definitely give it a try knowing backward walking have lower impact on our knees 🙂
Annabel Streets says
Good luck Ros… make sure it’s a flat surface!
Gwen Delmore says
Walking backwards and stepping side to side both help me when I’m standing too long on n the kitchen, also. I have arthritic knees.
Annabel Streets says
That’s interesting. Thanks for sharing!
Hi Annabel, I enjoyed your piece on backwards walking, I shall certainly be trying it more regularly. Older generation Chinese ladies here in Hong Kong have it down to a fine art and I’ve often wondered why they do it, now I know! All the best, Tina
Annabel Streets says
Wonderful to hear this – I suspect the Chinese ladies knew all along! Thanks for sharing!