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Think of your brain, balance and longevity
Around my local suburbs, I have never seen so many people regularly walking for their health. There were always the genteel walkers. But now, with the pandemic and gyms closed, there is a new breed on the paths and tracks.
I'm pleased to observe that they mostly are not "serious" walkers, those with intent looks and machine-driven arms. Although the majority are not so intense, they are satisfyingly consistent and purposeful. I'm one of those - I walk 5km at least once every day, and I've added in walking backwards.
With a single tweak, these regular-walking folk can significantly improve the health and longevity benefits from their activity.
Walking backwards is coming forward as a training adjunct
If you are a walker, the most significant single tweak to get more benefits is simply to add in intervals of walking backwards. Not only for your body but more importantly for your cognitive fitness.
Recently, in sports and medicine, walking backwards has been increasingly used, and pioneered by Russian sports scientists as is often the case (Ref Back-to-back walking in sports training and medical rehabilitation - А.V. Klemenov - Sports medicine: science and practice - 2017).
Walking backwards is a beneficial fitness technique.
This fitness benefit arises because walking backwards leads to a more significant load on our cardiovascular and respiratory systems. This load builds a more substantial increase in both our aerobic and anaerobic capabilities than just walking forward.
Compare your breathing when walking backwards at the same speed as walking forwards and you will viscerally feel the extra effort. Over time, this helps build your exercise capacity, which is positively associated with longevity.
Improves and strengthens your joints
Walking backwards is well known for reducing the strain on your knees. And it is one of the few natural ways to strengthen the quadriceps of the thigh. It is useful if you are recovering from hamstring strain because of reduced hip range of motion.
Because backward walking creates a reduced shear force on the knees, it can be useful rehabilitation for anyone experiencing pain going up and down stairs or when doing lunges or squats.
In fact, according to Body Results website, walking backwards helps people "undergoing post-surgical knee joint rehabilitation: suffering from muscle strains of the hip, groin, lower back or hamstrings; or suffering from a sprained ankle, Achilles tendon tears or shin splints".
When you balance backwards walking with walking forward in the best way - with the best movement - then you will gain balanced antagonist knee muscles, i.e. you hamstrings and your quadriceps. Having balance muscles (and strong balance muscles) goes a long way to reducing joint pain.
Back-forward walking training is used in rehabilitation programs to develop the correct gait pattern in children with cerebral palsy, stroke patients, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and spinal patients.
What this means for you is that walking backwards fires up the neuromuscular pathways that get tired as we age. The way to exercise these neural circuits and their muscle activation is to exercise them!
Tests with back-forward walking are used for diagnostic purposes because these tests show how well our brain and body can coordinate our balance and mobility.
For example, walking backwards is used to assess the severity of impaired coordination and motor skills in post-stroke patients, in Parkinson's disease, and to identify initial gait disorders in multiple sclerosis.
Walking backwards is also used as a diagnostic to predict the likelihood of a fall in elderly people and patients with dizziness. By regularly walking backwards you are exercising the same neuromuscular circuits that this "walking backwards" diagnostic tests. You will slow the rate of natural degeneration.
Our natural ability to "walk without thinking" becomes compromised as we age. You may have noticed older people appearing to concentrate as they walk. This happens to us when we lose the automaticity of walking.
In other words, we have to engage our brain consciously to control our direction and balance. In this case, the part of the brain we engage is our "executive control" system. Here's what neuroscientists say about this:
This is potentially detrimental to walking performance, as an executive control strategy is not optimized for locomotor control. Furthermore, it places excessive demands on a limited pool of executive reserves. The result is compromised ability to perform basic and complex walking tasks and heightened risk for adverse mobility outcomes including falls.
That isn't good. A fall can cut five years off your life. That's why balance exercises and exercises which coordinate your full body are a team are so important when you are over 50.
Walking backwards is the easiest and one of the most effective ways to retain the strength and endurance of your entire locomotor control system.
What to do
OK, well a few more tips, here’s how I started:
Add this for better balance
For even better balance, when walking backwards turn your head gently from side-to-side, looking from side to side (not keeping your eyes on the track).
This turning improves the condition of the position receptors in your neck, as well as the whole neuromuscular network needed to move and stay balanced.
Start tomorrow, you'll enjoy walking backwards and more so when you start to notice the benefits.
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter