Stimulate Your Fitness IQ By
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By Dr. Mercola:One of the challenges with
staying fit, even if you exercise regularly, is avoiding the
"plateaus" that occur as your muscles adapt to your workouts.
It takes just six to eight weeks for your body to adapt to your
exercise routine, according to the American Council on
Exercise,which means you need to change up your program at least
every couple of months or your fitness gains will level off.
If you're at a loss for a new activity to try, consider walking
backwards. Though it might sound a bit strange, it can be incredibly
Walking backwards helps you to use muscles and movements that
you probably rarely use, making it an ideal way to change up
your exercise routine for greater fitness gains.
When you walk backwards, it puts less strain and requires less
range of motion from your knee joints, which is useful for
people with knee problems or injuries.
Backward walking may help relieve lower back pain, improve
hamstring flexibility, burn more fat and calories in less time
than traditional walking, improve balance and even sharpen your
thinking skills and vision.
When walking backwards, do so in a safe location, such as on a
track, to avoid falling over obstacles in your path; you can
also take a buddy with you to act as your “eyes” and alert you
to any upcoming dangers.
The Many Benefits of Walking Backwards
Backward walking, also known as retro walking, is said to have
originated in ancient China, where it was practiced for good health.
In the modern world, it's become quite the rage in Japan, China and
parts of Europe, where people use it to build muscle, improve sports
performance, promote balance and more.
For starters, when you walk backwards, it puts less strain and
requires less range of motion from your knee joints, making it ideal
for people who have knee problems or injuries. Also, because
backward walking eliminates the typical heel-strike to the ground
(the toe contacts the ground first), it can lead to changes in
pelvis alignment that help open up the facet joints in your spine,
potentially alleviating pressure that may cause low back pain in
Not to mention, walking backwards gives you a chance to work out
all of those muscles in your legs, such as your quadriceps and
calves, which take a backseat to your hamstrings and glutes during
regular walking. It also works out your hamstrings in a different
way, and walking backwards for just 10-15 minutes, four days a week
for four weeks has been shown to increase flexibility in your
A More Intense, Comprehensive Workout in Less Time
Interestingly, when you walk backwards, your heart rate tends to
rise higher than it does when walking forward at the same pace,
which suggests you can get greater cardiovascular and
calorie-burning benefits in a shorter period of time. In one study,
women who underwent a six-week backward run/walk training program
had a significant decrease in body fat as well as improvements in
cardiorespiratory fitness at the end of the study.4
There appear to be benefits for your brain, too. Researchers
found that when you walk backwards, it sharpens your thinking skills
and enhances cognitive control.5
This may be because even though backward walking is a physical
activity, it's also a "neurobic" activity, meaning it requires brain
activity that may help you stay mentally sharp. Plus, since it puts
your senses into overdrive as you move in an unfamiliar way, it is
also known to enhance vision as well.
You Can Try Backward Running, Too
Many of the same benefits from backward walking extend to
backward running. This activity requires close to 30
percent more energy than running forward at the same pace,6
which means it burns more calories. This is partly because it
reverses the typical "soft takeoff" (when muscle-tendon units
shorten) and "hard landing" (when muscle-tendon units are stretched)
that is found in forward running, which requires greater step
frequency and energy expenditure..
Further, because backward running puts far less impact on your
knees, this activity is ideal if you ordinarily have knee pain or
problems. In fact, researchers have called backward running a safer
form of training that can actually improve your forward running
skills as well:7
"As in a catapult, muscle-tendon units are stretched more
slowly during the brake at the beginning of stance and shorten
more rapidly during the push at the end of stance. We suggest
that the catapult-like mechanism of backward running, although
requiring greater energy expenditure and not providing a
smoother ride, may allow a safer stretch-shorten cycle of
As many of you know I was a runner for 43 years before I gave it
up completely. I even ran a 2:50 marathon in 1982 during my prime.
One of the strategies I used back then was backward running, so I
have some experience with it. If you decide to try this very useful
exercise I would warn you of two points.
First, be very cautious as it is easy to trip and fall backwards,
or to run into someone as obviously you don't have eyes in the back
of your head. And if you twist your head to constantly look where
you are going this could actually result in some structural
problems. Secondly, if you run backward for any length of time you
will severely wear out your shoes, as you are landing on places that
are not designed to take high amounts of wear -- so I would suggest
using an older pair of shoes that you don't mind ruining.
Special Considerations for Backward Walking and Running
Obviously, when you walk backward one of the biggest risks is
falling or tripping over potholes, parked cars, signs and other
obstacles. It's best to start out this activity in a secure
location, such as on a (non-busy) track or in an open field. If you
decided to walk outdoors elsewhere, consider taking a buddy with you
who will walk forward and alert you to any upcoming dangers.
You can also try backward walking on a treadmill (being careful
to start slow to avoid tripping) or use a backward motion when using
an elliptical machine. Another consideration is that your shoes will
get more wear when you walk backward, so if you do it often you may
need to replace them more often.
More Tips for Changing Up Your Exercise Routine
To truly optimize your health, you'll want to strive for a varied
and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a variety of
exercises. Without variety, your body will quickly adapt. I
strongly recommend incorporating the following types of exercises to
create a well-rounded fitness program suitable to your current level
of fitness. You can also find
customized fitness programs for the beginner, intermediate, and
advanced levels here.
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when
you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with
gentle recovery periods, such as
- Strength Training: Rounding out your
exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will
ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health
benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the
intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using
super slow weight training as a form of high intensity
interval exercise, please see my interview with
Dr. Doug McGuff.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core
muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This
group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout
your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and
support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury
and help you gain greater balance and stability.
You need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The
weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer
than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four
repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same
muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to
recover, repair and rebuild. Exercise programs like Pilates and
yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are
specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching
is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With
Active Isolated Stretching or AIS, you hold each stretch for
only two seconds, which works with your body's natural
physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the
elasticity of muscle joints.
This technique also allows your body to help repair itself
and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like
Power Plate to help you stretch.