What if simply changing the direction you are walking could actually REDUCE your arthritis pain. It can be as easy as walking backwards! A recent study showed that “a 6-week retro walking program compared with forward walking or control groups resulted in greater reduction in pain and functional disability and improved quadriceps muscle strength and performance in individuals with knee [osteoarthritis].” If you love walking, this is great news, especially with knee osteoarthritis. Let’s dive deeper into why walking backwards is so good for you.
When is the last time you walked or even ran backwards? I’d have to imagine it has been awhile. Maybe the last time was at a soccer practice 40 years ago😜
If so, fear not. Walking backwards isn’t typically something we do in our daily lives. But, I just had a 93 year old patient master walking backwards. You can too.
Why all this talk about walking in reverse?
There has been a multitude of research studies looking at the benefits of moving backwards compared to forwards. What they have found is actually kind of amazing. That simply changing one thing about your walking can open up an amazing opportunity for arthritis pain relief.
Why walking backwards over forwards: the muscles
The difference between walking backwards and walking forwards can be boiled down to one main thing: which muscles are working.
If you are somewhere where you can stand up, do me a favor and start walking forwards. Notice which parts of your feet hit the ground first. Typical walking is heel contact then toe contact to push off. See the diagram below from Foot Bionics.
Forward walking tends to put more force through your knees and low back because the heel is contacting first.
Now, try to walk backwards. Notice how your feet change. Your toes hit the ground first followed by your heels.
An article in Prevention states, “When you walk backward, the ball of your toe strikes the ground first, which distributes the shock over a greater surface area and leads to a softer impact.”
According to Hyun-Gyu Cha et al. 2019, “backward walking has less impact on the kneecaps and patello-femoral joints as the metatarsal joints come in contact with the surface first.” This means that if you tend to have pain in or around your knee caps, you may experience less pressure thus less irritation!
What’s also interesting is that your thigh muscles actually work harder when walking backwards. Thigh muscles are incredibly important when helping to stabilize and decrease irritation of the knee. Stronger thighs are one of the major keys to overcoming knee osteoarthritis. Find out everything you need to know about knee osteoarthritis here.
Research has shown that walking backwards actually activates more muscles than walking forwards does. Why is this important? You can actually burn more energy and calories walking backwards! 🔥
If you tried walking backwards while reading above, you may have noticed it feels a little strange. Maybe you felt like you were even going to lose your balance. This is totally normal.
When we try new exercises and new ways of moving, our body needs a little bit of time to learn the movement. But something great about learning how to walk or even run backwards? It can improve your balance!
One of the surefire ways to improve your balance is to introduce variety into your training routine. Constantly doing the same exercises over and over again doesn’t challenge your body. You will reach a point where your body is used to the movements. This can actually lead to a decline in balance when put in other situations.
For example, if walking forwards is one of your only forms of exercise, when you are put in a position where you have to walk backwards or cross your feet to avoid an obstacle, you may lose your balance. This is because your body is not used to these movements.
How do I get started?
Walking backwards can be a little scary at first. One of the best ways to begin trying is doing it where you have support. Many times I have clients walk backwards down a hallway where they can use the wall to stabilize. Other times you can try it along a counter if you have one big enough. You can also have someone follow behind you just in case!
We want to make sure you have a clear path because it can be harder to see and navigate a busy floor. Make sure all obstacles are out of the way and you know where the floor thresholds are if you have them. We don’t want any tripping!
Here are the steps to getting started walking backwards:
- Start by just simply getting comfortable walking backwards. Take a few steps around your house in a safe environment.
- Then, walk forwards about 10-15 steps and walk backwards 10-15 steps for 3-4 times through.
- Once you have mastered that, increase the distance you are going. The longer you ask your body to walk backwards, the more muscle activity you have (which is a good thing!).
- You can then progress to trying to walk backwards up hills. This is only for those that feel confident doing this.
- The last step is mastering running backwards. Make sure you have done quite a few reps of walking before progressing to running without any stumbles or loss of balance. I always advise you have someone close by when you are getting started.
Not just for the knees!
If you have degenerative disc disease, chronic back or hip pain, or even ankle arthritis- walking backwards can help those too!
Notice how when you are walking backwards, your posture changes. When walking forwards, you may notice you lean forward or even arch your back (this is common with back muscle tightness).
When you walk in reverse, you tend to adopt more of an upright posture. You are working your back and leg muscles in a different way. This can lead to increasing the stretch and decreasing the tension of the muscles.
Our bodies love variety. If you find yourself constantly moving in a forward direction, some muscles can get overworked. This can change the way we move and thus lead to more pain.
When moving backwards, we use our postural muscles a little differently. We challenge different muscles to work a little harder. This is when the magic happens.
For example, according to the Idaho State Journal, “The large muscle complex called the Iliopsoas muscle, that allows your forward stride, attaches to your lumbar spine and can be implicated in several back problems and pain syndromes.” This muscle can get overworked when we are getting lots of reps walking forwards. Changing it up by adding in backwards walking can alleviate some of that stress!
Walking backwards has tremendous benefits if you have arthritis in your spine, knees, hips, and ankles. Simply adding it into your current routine can help to even the stress your joints are absorbing.
Be careful when first getting acclimated as there is a risk for losing your balance. Once your body becomes used to the movement, you have lots of options to progress!
If you loved this article and want more fantastic and motivating information about arthritis download the Ultimate Arthritis Guide HERE.
Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.