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Our 53rd Year

The Next New Old Thing: Retro Walking

Have you walked backwards lately? This is a practice for health and well-being, believed to have originated in ancient China. Now, in the 21st Century, going in reverse, or the hipper-sounding “retro walking,” is becoming a new workout phenomenon, especially in Japan, China, Europe and the U.S.! And beyond being a popular exercise, it’s a fast growing sport with events, like the New York Road Runners Backwards Mile in Manhattan, with records being set and broken at quicker rates than forward moving competitions.

What’s the big backwards deal? Recent scientific research confirms that, for people of all ages and fitness levels, there are unique and important benefits to retro training:

  • Improves cardiorespiratory fitness, positive body composition changes, balance and coordination, greater intensity for less time.
  • Puts less strain on the knee joints, requiring less range of motion, so it’s recommended for those with knee problems or injuries. It’s often used to speed recovery by professional injured athletes.
  • In reverse walking the toe contacts the ground first, eliminating the heel-strike to the ground, so it can lead to changes in pelvic alignment that open up the facet joints in the spine, easing pressure that might cause low back pain in some individuals.
  • Works out leg muscles, like quads and calves, that don’t get the focus of attention of hamstrings and glutes in going forward.
  • Walking backward, your heart rate tends to rise more than when moving forward at the same pace.
  • Expends more energy. Burns a fifth more calories than going forwards at only 80% of the speed of forward motion. Interestingly, studies show that women loose body fat more readily with regular backward walking than with forward walking.
  • Improves memory, as one study put it, “an indication that a link between the concepts of ‘time’ and ‘space’ are essential to the way our minds form memories.”
  • Sharpens the brain, by using thinking skills and improving cognitive control. This makes sense since it requires more concentration than forward motion. Gradually, balance, peripheral vision and hearing skills are strengthened as new neural connections in your brain help you stay mentally sharp, enhance memory and head off loss of brain cells that could lead to conditions like Alzheimer’s later on.
  • The novelty factor. Many people are prone to gym boredom, so retro workouts add a new challenge that has been found to inspire those, who can easily talk themselves out of another regular workout session, to get out there!

Getting Started

At first, it’s hard to believe you can be comfortable going in reverse, but, most people, once they try it, are surprised how good it can feel.

  • Some safety tips:
  • Newcomers need to start slowly, somewhere safe like a track, backyard, a beach, or familiar road where you can avoid potholes, or other hazards. A flat surface — an indoor or outdoor track or paved walk path — is best.
  • Change your shoes regularly. Most athletic shoes are not designed to take high amounts of wear in the areas that will be making regular contact with the ground, so check your shoes periodically, or perhaps rotate several pairs.
  • Start with 100-250 steps a day, and work up, about 10-15 min.a day. There’s an old Chinese belief that walking backward for 100 steps is equal to walking forwards for 1,000 steps.
  • Professor Jon Wang, an orthopedic surgeon at University of Arizona and advisor to Runner’s World magazine, suggests retro works well as part of a cool-down at the end of a gym session or jog: “…easing into a gentle backwards run lets you gradually decrease your heart rate, and it stretches your calf, quadricep and hamstring muscles, which have all been working hard during forward running.”
  • Some people do retro on a treadmill, but you must start at slow speed, e.g., 1 mile per hour. DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU HAVE BALANCE OR CO-ORDINATION DIFFICULTIES. Also, try not holding onto the handrails. It completely disarrays your body posture and nullifies the wonderful positive benefits you would be getting.  
  • In the beginning, go with a buddy who can walk or jog forward and keep an eye on you. But, if on your own, keep looking over your shoulder to see if anything might come in your way. Focus on each individual stride and don’t get ahead of yourself. Start small and build up.
  • Watch the videos below to get a better sense of how it’s done, different styles and venues

And finally, be prepared to get some strange looks when people see you rambling in reverse. Never mind! They don’t know what they’re missing! Just enjoy the feeling of engaging your mind and muscles in a new and powerful way.

Video: Why Chinese people WALK BACKWARDS!!??
Video: Backward Walking (retro walking)
Video: Retro Walking
The Great Leap Backward

Why Walk Backward?
Effects of retro walking on quadricep muscle strength, pain, function, and mobility in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a protocol for a randomized controlled trial
Retro walking: One step backwards, two steps forward!
Walking Backwards Boosts Memory