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Health & Exercise Forum

Backward Walking is Forward Thinking!

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May 21, 2012

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumRecently, a patient, Pat McKenna, editor of The Times-Tribune, came to my office with a partial tear and strain to one of his hamstring muscles. He stated that he has always had hamstring tightness and has walked backward as a warm-up exercise to prevent injury. I found the concept of backward walking, (also called retrowalking) interesting and decided to research the topic for more information and validation. As it turns out, not only does Pat know about editing a newspaper, he knows a thing or two about the body and exercise. Walking backward does have many therapeutic benefits, however, before you attempt this activity on a treadmill or elliptical, please consult your physician and physical therapist and have a spotter nearby.

Strength Improved in Leg Muscles

At the 2011 annual meeting of The American College of Sports Medicine, several studies were presented on the topic of backward waking. Most of the research was conducted while moving backward on a treadmill and an elliptical machine. When comparing two groups recovering from knee injuries, the backward motion group showed significant improvement in strength in the quadriceps (front thigh) and hamstring (back thigh) muscles when compared to the traditional forward walking group. Furthermore, the muscles of the front (tibialis anterior) and back (gastro/achilles) of the shin/ankle also demonstrated an increase in strength and endurance with backward walking. One explanation is that forward motion is routine in daily living that it has become very efficient and does not tax or stress the muscles the body. While this efficiency prevents fatigue in daily activities, it may not stress the muscles enough to gain strength as quickly as an unfamiliar exercise.

Cardiovascular Benefit/Calorie Expenditure

Due in great part to the increased strain of performing an unfamiliar exercise, backward walking on a treadmill or backward pedaling on an elliptical, offered a greater cardiovascular benefit and caloric expenditure than forward motion at all levels. Specifically, walking backward on a treadmill at 2.5 mph at grades of 5% - 10% has been found to significantly increase cardiovascular endurance than walking forward under the same conditions. This knowledge is useful for healthy individuals in need of greater cardio exercise. However, it may also serve as a precaution for those with cardio problems and should consult their physician prior to engaging in this activity.

Weight Loss

A recent study in the International Journal of Obesity, found that those who performed new activities or increased the intensity of an activity, even if for a short duration (interval training) expended more energy and burned more calories than those who worked out at the same pace consistently for a longer duration. Moreover, when engaging in a new activity such as backward walking, even more calories were burned. This phenomenon may be due to the fact that routine activities such as forward walking are performed more efficiently and easily. We challenge our body when we inefficiently perform a new motor skill such as backward walking and burn more calories. In other words, if you want to burn more calories without exercising for longer periods of time, than try a new activity and engage in higher intensity, intermittently, for part of the time. For example, walk backward on the treadmill for 30 minutes at 2.5 mph, but do so at a 5 – 10% incline for 1-2 minutes every 5 minutes.

Protection for Your Muscles, Tendons and Joints

Some studies show that using other muscle groups by performing different exercises not only prevents boredom, but also protects your muscles and tendons from overuse and joints from wear and tear. Specifically, the knee joint and the patella joint (the joint where the knee cap glides on the knee), benefits from backward walking due to less stress and compression forces on the joint. The thigh and ankle/foot muscles benefit from using a different form of contraction while lengthening the muscle. Some authors propose that this may also prevent strains and pulls and may be valuable to strengthen those with a history of shin splints and flat feet (pronation).

Prevents Boredom

Mixing up your program prevents boredom. As a rule, those willing to change their exercise routine are more compliant and continue to exercise longer than those stuck in the same routine. A new challenge to improve distance, speed, and resistance while exercising in a different direction will be refreshing to your program.

Improved Balance and Coordination

Prevention of falls by improvement in balance and coordination has received a great deal of attention in the past few years. This is not only valuable to the athlete but may be even more important to those over 50. With age, balance centers are slow to react to changes in inclination, elevation, rotation and lateral movements. This slow reaction time leads to falls that may cause fractures, head injuries and more. Working on this problem by challenging the vestibular and balance centers before it is seriously compromised is important and backward walking is one way for this to be effectively accomplished.

NOTE: When walking backward, hold on to the grab bars on the treadmill and make sure to have a spotter to supervise the new activity until you become accomplished.

NOTE: Reduce the treadmill speed and elliptical resistance until you become more familiar with this new technique.

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

Photos: Jennifer Hnatko, Model: Amanda Brown, PTA, ATC

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum" in the Scranton Times-Tribune.

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College.