Years ago, I read an interview with Jane Fonda where she said she walked backward daily to keep her brain healthy. At the time I was intrigued but not enough to try it. However, once my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago, I kept thinking about that interview. Could this be something I could add to my exercise routine?
I researched walking backward on the internet and found many great articles about the benefit of backward walking. There have been countless studies to prove it does help the brain. Researchers found that when you walk backward, it sharpens your thinking skills and enhances cognitive control. Backward walking is a physical activity, but it’s also a “neurobic” activity — it requires brain activity that may help you stay mentally sharp.
I thought about trying it for months but felt embarrassed. What would the neighbors think, if I was walking backward? Yes, I still worry about what other people think of me. But as I watched my mother’s mind slip slowly away, I knew I needed to do everything in my power to keep my brain healthy. I had researched superfoods for the brain and was now regularly eating blueberries, walnuts, eggs, Tumeric, avocados, spinach, kale, salmon, tuna, tea, dark chocolate, and more.
My mother passed away in July 2019, and for months I found myself frozen with grief and barely able to walk around our beautiful neighborhood. Instead, I ate my feelings and threw myself into writing a memoir of my journey as her caregiver. Then at the beginning of 2020, I had surgery and wasn’t able to exercise for three months. Once I received approval from my doctor, I donned my sweats, walking shoes and hit the streets. Slowly but surely, I was back in the exercise game.
One day out of the blue, I was inspired to walk backward. It felt weird. I only lasted for 12 steps. I was afraid I would lose my balance and break an arm or a hip. This is not for me. Kudos to Jane for doing this every day!
Try it again, I thought the next week. I spun around and started to walk backward counting 15 steps and then turned around walking forward. After another block, I turned and walked backward for 20 steps. I completed three sets of 20 steps that day. I had to slow down, bend my knees a bit while concentrating on what I was doing. I tightened my hip muscles. I took smaller steps. I breathed. As cars or walkers passed me, I smiled and waved.
The next week I did 30 backward steps and within weeks I could do 50 consecutive steps. I did a victory dance up my driveway that day!
Walking backward began to feel natural.
My legs felt stronger. My steps were more deliberate. I was learning something new and keeping my brain strong. I trusted my brain was firing off new neurotransmitters, new pathways. I was using different muscles and when I looked in the mirror, my butt looked tighter. My husband noticed it too!
“You’re looking good in those yoga pants,” my husband Jimmy said to me one morning.
“I’m walking backward!” I exclaimed.
“Why?” he asked, looking at me as if I had lost my mind.
“I’m working my brain in a new way,” I replied. “You should try it too!”
Soon I was walking entire blocks backward and it is now a regular part of my exercise routine.
One day I stepped on a stick and lost my balance. As I began to fall, I engaged my core muscles, caught myself, straightened up, and miraculously didn’t hit the ground. I had been deep in thought and not paying attention. I wasn’t being mindful. It scared me and reminded me to slow down. Breathe.
Life Lessons of Walking Backward
Walking backward reminds me of 2020. We were all walking backward through life, not knowing what was in front of us. Life felt awkward. Life as we knew it had changed and none of us were prepared for the upheaval of the Covid19 pandemic. We just had to trust the universe had our backs and it would be ok. We would be ok. We could complain and vent or try to grow mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. We could look at our core values, make some changes, and live for today.
We could practice gratitude. We could slow down and breathe. We could be gentle with ourselves. The extra time at home gave us permission to take care of ourselves and practice some new ways of being.
My Tips for Walking Backward
- Start slow. Try it for 5–10 steps and add steps gradually.
- Take smaller steps. This is not power walking.
- Bend your knees slightly.
- Hold in your core muscles.
- Turn off the music. It’s a great way to practice mindfulness.
- Don’t forget to smile. Especially when the neighbors walk or drive by.
I still haven’t been able to convince Jimmy to join me in walking the neighborhood, much less walking backward, but my 85-year-old father walks daily with me. At first, he thought I was walking backward to check on him since he is always walking behind me. I assured him, I was just learning a new skill, keeping my brain sharp so I don’t get Alzheimer’s like Mom.
I may not know what 2021 is going to look like, but I can look back at 2020, know I survived walking backward through life and I’m stronger in many ways. I’m spinning around and leaping into 2021. I’m ready for new life challenges and the gift of a stronger and better me!