The unexpected benefits of Walking Backwards

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We’ve seen that practising a backwards weight shift is good for improving balance as well strengthening the stabilisers in hips, knees and ankles.

In China, people say that walking backwards is good for your health generally. Early in the morning or after the day’s work is done, it’s quite normal to see people walking briskly backwards along the pavement. They’re probably also clapping their hands first in front, then behind them, in time to their steps.

My husband says that the first time he saw this, he automatically looked around to see who was looking after this person – obviously in need of care! But the man smiled at him and waved, and was clearly friendly, so he just smiled and waved back. After that he noticed more and more people doing it – it’s a long established health practice.

Research in the West seems to be backing this up, indicating a number of benefits.

Physical benefits

First, walking backwards has less impact on joints, because the physical action is different.

When you walk forward, the combination of hard surfaces and the ‘falling forward’ approach used by many people means that the ball of the heel suffers repeated heavy impacts. These are transmitted to the other joints in the legs and can lead to problems. Going backwards, you reach back with your toe, and roll the foot down from toe to heel. This protects joints and keeps feet alive and active.

Second, the range of motion is more limited when you go backwards, which can help keep your knees comfortable. In fact, the literature suggests that tendons and ligaments may be stretched in more gentle ways.

Walking backwards also uses different muscles from going forwards – if you try the simple exercise below, you’ll notice the effects quite quickly! It also uses more energy and makes your heart work a little harder. Try feeling the muscles to each side of your spine as you move back, and notice them working hard too.

As discussed in previous emails, it improves your balance and the working of the various stabilising muscles, tendons and ligaments in your hips and legs. We tend to assume that balance deteriorates with age, but it seems that much of the damage is caused by another mechanism (see *below).

So, practised safely, there are all kinds of good effects.

Increased awareness of the environment

There is another important benefit – it helps increase your awareness of your body and its environment.

In ordinary life, a lot of our attention is focused directly in front of us. Think of our habits of sitting at desks, in armchairs and on sofas, of watching tv or working on a computer for long periods…

In our tai chi classes, we practice de-focusing our awareness, letting it spread out around us – and it turns out we are really good at this. (Biologically, as both predator and prey, it makes sense for us to be aware in all directions – including upwards and downwards.)

Walking backwards is another great opportunity to develop awareness skills. Like the Cape exercise, it naturally draws our attention to our back and the area just behind us, waking us up to part of the world we often ignore.

It can also encourage fluid movement of the neck, and with keeping the back flexible and easing discomfort there. But remember to take it very gently, staying well within your comfort zone and never using more than 70% of your comfortable range of motion.

Of course you already know how to walk backwards! But if you decide to add some drills, here are some suggestions:

Basic movement

First, check that you’re in a safe area, clear the floor and make sure there are no low coffee tables etc. It can help to walk along the edge of a kitchen work surface or bed, so there is something to reach out for if you need it.

Start by moving slowly and taking just a few steps.

Begin with good posture, relaxing your head, neck and shoulders. (Tensing is common, but defeats your purpose.)

Reach one toe behind you, just a little way, and shift back. Then the other foot.You may want to turn your head a little, so you can use your peripheral vision to check behind you. Then turn back to the front and take another step.

Repeat, speeding up as you get used to it. It can feel strange at first to take several consecutive backwards steps, but it quickly becomes familiar.

Going further

If you are fit and comfortable with it and have the space, you can walk backwards as far as you like. Bear in mind, though, that it is more tiring than it might seem. You are likely also to find unusual muscles protesting if you do too much too soon.

Backwards and forwards

Here’s a more domestically-sized drill that is very helpful:

Start as above, standing comfortably tall, and relaxing your head and shoulders.

Take 5 steps backwards, then balance on that last foot.

Let the other leg swing back as if you were going to take another step… but instead let it swing forward again and walk forwards 5 steps.

At the far end, balance again, and swing the moving foot forward and then back, and walk 5 steps backwards again and repeat as many times as you like.

Moving like this takes a lot less space and still gives you excellent backwards and balance practice. It is a good general rehab drill too after illness or problems with the lower limbs.

Yang style Repulse Monkey

Another powerful exercise is the backwards stepping from Repulse Monkey Yang style, if you know it. Leave out the arms for the time being, and just enjoy stepping backwards, moving back and forth across that ribbon!

Safety, safety, safety

Walking backwards is definitely good for you! But take it gently, watch out for obstacles, and go at a slow pace to start with. Maybe then one of these days, it will be you walking backwards along a pavement, clapping your hands in front and behind as you go!

*A bonus rant about ageing – is it really age, or just disuse?

Our bodies are constantly adapting to the work we ask of them, and it’s a case of use it or lose it! Unused muscles waste away, as the body reroutes resources to parts of the body still in use. Astronauts have a big problem with this: the lack of gravity means their muscles and bones are not sufficiently stressed to keep their normal size and strength. Returning spacemen can find it hard to walk, despite on-board workout regimes.

All this suggests that the real change we seem to experience from our 40s or so onward, is that we use our bodies less overall, and in more stereotyped ways than before. For example, it’s uncommon for someone in their 60s to wave their hands wildly over their heads like a teenager – not only when out with friends, or on the street, but at all. Little by little, without our noticing, the range and speed of our movements begins to shrink…

We are still wonderful at lifting mugs of tea! But suddenly reaching out for that ball racing past our heads, or running flat out for a bus… maybe not. And the help offered us by younger friends and relatives may actually make things worse, by limiting our movements even further.

All of this has a slow and subtle knock on effect.

When we do come to chase a ball round a field, cycle for the first time in a year or two, need to balance on one foot to reach an awkward high shelf, we recognise the weakness we feel. At this point, we are all too prone to say, well I suppose it’s my age… I’m slowing down… it comes to us all… and so forth.

However, as we can tell from looking at contemporaries who have continued to move freely, in many different directions, and at different speeds, age seems to affect people very differently.

I’m not suggesting that age does not have an effect, and conditions like arthritis can have big impacts. At the same time, when we attribute an increasing weakness to age, we tend to forget to look at what we’ve been asking our body to do recently. Our bodies are extremely effective, energy-husbanding systems – if we don’t use muscles, they will weaken. If we rarely exercise high-level balance skills, our capabilities weaken.

(Funny how pianists who’ve not played for a while say, oh, I’m out of practice! Rather than oh, I’m old!)

Of course, this has its wonderful upside. If we start to use our bodies in new ways, our bodies will adapt and support us.

Recent research suggests that, if you’ve ever in your life had reasonable muscles, you should be able to redevelop them right into old age. (It is probably possible even if you haven’t, but it would take more work and time.) It’s as if the template is still there, stored up, even though much of the muscle tissue itself is long gone for reuse.

It’s the same with balance – it’s entirely possible to have better balance in your 60s and 70s than in your 40s. Falling might still be more damaging later than when you were younger, but since your balance is going to be better, you’ll fall far less often!