The Mighty Morphins Prove Backward Walking is More Than it Seems

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John Michael Vincent Coralde works with kinesiology students who volunteered as subjects for his research project on the benefits of backward walking.


It may be time to turn your back on your walking routine.

It is 7:30 a.m. in PE 101 and 30 students are walking for 15 minutes in circles before they head for class. Half moved forward and half walked backwards. They would repeat this early morning exercise every Monday and Wednesday over a ten-week period. In the beginning, one half were probably wishing they had eyes in the back of their heads. But soon it became second nature.

The 30 volunteered to be part of the Mighty Morphin Backwards Walkers study, an undergraduate research project funded by Provost Andrew Rogerson as part of his focus on supporting undergraduate research at SSU. 

The final results proved the ancient Chinese proverb that "walking backwards for 100 steps is equal to walking forward for 1,000 steps."

Kinesiology major John Michael Vincent Coralde put together the project to test the idea that backward walkers would experience more hamstring flexibility than their forward walking counterparts. His faculty advisor was Professor Lauren S. Morimoto, Associate Professor of Kinesiology.


Coralde is the CSU Hearst Scholar for 2013-14 and hopes to go to medical school one day and then return to the Phillipines, his native country, to help address the health needs of the poor. His findings after ten weeks showed backward walking improved hamstring flexibility in college-aged healthy subjects at a rate higher than forward walkers in the same study.



The SSU study


The Impact of Backward Walking on Hamstring Flexibility began with each volunteer measuring their hamstrings at the beginning with a sit-and-reach test and then at five week and ten week intervals.


By the fifth week, the backward walkers had an average increase of 1.8 inches or 14.65% and forward walkers showed an average increase of 1.1 inches or 5.53%. By ten weeks, the backward walkers had consistently improved by an average of 2.1 inches, an overall increase of 18.75%.


The forward walkers' average improvement was 0.95 inches, an overall ten week increase of 8.18 %. Surprisingly, there was a decrease in average improvement of 0.15 inches or 13% decrease from the five-week measurements compared to the ten-week measurements. Forward walkers did not consistently improve.


The study has implications for further research to determine whether this physical activity regimen can contribute towards treatment of lower back pain, improved posture, balance and cognitive plasticity, say Coralde and Morimoto.



What is backward walking?


Backward walking is not the reverse of forward walking, it has its own dynamic. Some say it has less impact on the body and Coralde and Morimoto say hamstring flexibility can be difficult to achieve with static or dynamic stretching. But, introduce the motion of backwards walking and a new series of actions that promote new joint motion patterns are put into play.


"When walking backward, you strike with the toes first, rather than the heel," says Morimoto. "Toes are able to absorb more shock than the heels. Many individuals tend to stand more upright when walking backward and it also burns more calories than walking forward at the same pace."


Backward walking helps with hamstring flexibility because it pre-stretches the muscles before activating them, says Morimoto. "It seems to stretch and strengthen the hamstrings, which may allow for more even muscle use between hamstrings and quads. This may allow for the increased flexibility."


This kind of activity can be used to build muscle, develop sports performance and promote stability by reducing the tightness in the hamstrings. "Consider the idea of walking backwards and a whole new world of affordable fitness opens up," says Coralde.


In November 2012, The Times of India reported on the recent explosion in the popularity of backward, or retro-walking, as a form of exercise in Japan, China and India.


In these Asian countries where backward walking has become a "fitness fad," proponents of backward walking extol a range of benefits ranging from a reduction in joint stress and lower back paint to an increase in joint range-of-motion and caloric expenditure, says Morimoto. But, it has yet to show up strongly in the U.S.


Hamstrings make the difference


Located on the back of the thigh are string-like tendons that support much of the responsibility for posture, walking gait and lower back health. Called the hamstrings, their increased flexibility can potentially improve the ease and efficiency of basic human activities like standing, walking and running.


Morimoto says tight hamstrings raise the potential for various injuries as well as lower back pain or spasm. Since the hamstring muscles are responsible for knee flexion, inflexibility or tightness may limit knee joint movement, which raises the possibility of injury.


Despite its growing popularity, there are few studies on backward walking - and those studies tend to focus on how backward walking affects injury rehabilitation or Alzheimer's disease.


In other words, studies examine backward walking as an intervention for pathology rather than a preventative exercise. A report in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences suggested that retro-walking has a positive effect on patients with knee osteoarthritis.


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Student volunteers are backward walking on the left and forward walking on the right. Most volunteers were kinesiology students who signed up for a ten week session meeting twice a week for 15 minutes of walking around the gym in PE101.


Get started with other walkers

  

Coralde feels backward walking should be ideally pursued as a group fitness activity, like moving around a track or park with others. It is an opportunity to provide a communal experience like one seen among Tai Chi practitioners in city parks in China, he says. He called his group the Mighty Morphin Backward Walkers to build group identity among his participants. Coralde's students could be seen checking their phones and talking in two and threes during the ten weeks of practice.


Taking those first backward steps


(Check with a medical doctor first to insure this activity is personally appropriate)

1. Start off with backward walking realizing that it will be challenging.
2. Choose a flat area outside or in a living room where there are no obstacles.
3. Start with a 15-30 second walk to get the "feel" of the movement and ask someone to monitor you closely. A person backwards walking might even get a little dizzy and lose their balance.
4. Create backward-walking intervals between other exercises. Create a 15-30 minute intervals of a backward walking regimen for at least six sessions.
5. Increase the time depending on the rate of success. If you are having difficulty with this movement, Shorten the duration.
6. Once comfortable with the movement, gradually increase the duration, over time.
7. If you experience pain and/or are unsuccessful at the exercise (lose balance, cannot move properly), avoid the exercise.
8. Once successful at a 15-30 minute retro-walk, consider a retro-run strategy following the same parameters for the walk.

Studies show that a 4-week program may be enough to see positive results.

- Jean Wasp


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