It’s no secret that walking is beneficial for overall health, but does the new trend of walking backwards actually have a positive effect for those looking to optimize their healthspan? Backwards walking has been an exercise used in physical therapy and for rehabilitation, but the exercise has more recently been touted by those in the wellness and fitness space to address health proactively.
While the scientific evidence on walking backwards is still in its infancy, there may be health benefits. Not only does reverse walking provide a new way to challenge your body, even just a few minutes of backwards walking a day has the potential to improve balance, increase flexibility, and contribute to greater muscle strength.
Though the research supports some health benefits, be certain to consult with your healthcare provider to know if this exercise is right for you.
Health benefits of walking backwards
Walking is a form of exercise that is easy to do anywhere, and with the emerging health benefits, adding some reverse walking into your workout routine can have a positive impact on a number of factors that influence healthspan.
1. Improves balance
A part of maintaining independence later in life is rooted in our physical health, including adequate muscular strength and balance to engage in recreational endeavors and activities of daily living as you age. Reverse walking will engage the body’s vestibular system, which is a sensory system located in vertebrates that stimulates balance.  Having a strong sense of balance also helps to prevent falls that could cause serious injury.
Based on your health goals and certain biomarker levels, InsideTracker may offer a balance-focused exercise recommendation.
2. Builds leg strength
The biomechanics of walking backwards are different from those of forward walking. Reverse walking targets distinct muscles, with an emphasis on quadriceps and hip flexor lengthening while the glute and hamstring muscles shorten. This reduces compressive force and stress on the knee joint.
A six week randomized controlled trial looked at the implications of reverse walking on muscle strength and knee pain in 68 individuals with osteoarthritis. At the end of the six weeks, the group that participated in ten minutes of reverse walking three days per week saw a reduction in reported knee pain and functional disability, with an increase in quadricep strength, known to support knee strength.  Having strong leg muscles also helps maintain balance and decreases the risk of falls and fractures, which are associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.
3. Increases mobilitySince walking backwards involves a different set of muscles than forward walking, it activates joints of the leg differently. This change and challenge to the lower legs can help to improve range of motion. Having increased mobility allows the joints to move through their normal range of motion and is important in maintaining health and preventing injury. [1,2] While mobility decreases with age, maintaining greater motor ability can improve activities of daily living and independence as adults age.
4. Improves core strength
Due to the biomechanics of reverse walking, core muscles are activated to properly balance while walking backwards. This includes muscles that support the spine. Activating these and your other core muscles can help to build core strength and postural stability, or the ability to control the body’s position for both balance and movement. [1,2] With its critical role in balance and posture, maintaining core strength will also help to prevent injuries and allows for the ability to continue regular activity.
5. Benefits cognition
Walking forward is something that we put little thought to as we go about our daily lives. But adding backwards walking into your exercise routine will challenge you both physically and mentally as it requires you to pay more attention to your movements. This will stimulate cognitive processes like attention, concentration, and spatial awareness.  During the aging process, continuing to challenge your brain is critical to maintaining good cognitive function.
6. Burns calories
When looking at energy expenditure in METs, or metabolic equivalents, studies show that backwards walking has the potential to expend more energy when compared to walking forwards. [4,5] Staying physically active and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.
7. Improves VO2max
Walking is known to be an excellent way to improve cardiorespiratory fitness by working the lungs and the heart, and VO2max—a measure of how much oxygen the body uses during maximum effort— is known to decline with age. But what about reverse walking? This study in young women found significantly improved predicted VO2max values after adding reverse walking into a 6-week run/walk routine. The results suggest that backward walk/run training improves cardiorespiratory fitness in young women.  More research is needed to assess potential benefits in other populations.
8. Improves body composition
The same study that looked at the outcomes of reverse run/walk training in young women also found a significant decrease in body fat percentage. This suggests that backward walk/run training improves body composition in young women and may have the same potential in other populations, but more research is needed.  Muscle and bone health may also reap benefits. Lean body mass and bone mineral density decline during the aging process, but regular exercise can help maintain both muscle mass and bone health. And having a healthy body composition decreases the risk of developing chronic diseases, including hypertension and heart disease.
Who should incorporate backwards walking into their routine?
Many people can benefit from walking backwards. For those who are already active, this can be a great way to try something new in your exercise routine while activating a variety of muscles and joints in a different way. It can also help active individuals use exercise as an awareness tool to check in on their strength, fitness, and mobility for every day tasks.
Once cleared by a healthcare provider, older adults may gain a number of health benefits from reverse walking. Adding backwards walking is an excellent way to improve balance, maintain muscle mass and strength, and provide a mental and physical challenge throughout the lifespan.
Backwards walking is also used as a rehabilitation tool that is best discussed with a healthcare provider. Individuals with a number of health conditions including knee osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis, and during the recovery from stroke or a traumatic brain injury may benefit from walking backwards as part of their rehab plan. [7,8]
Walking backwards may not be suitable for everyone. Consult with your healthcare provider to determine if walking backwards is suitable for you.
Tips to safely start walking backwards
Sold on the health benefits of backwards walking? Here are some tips to get started with backwards walking as part of your exercise routine:
- Try backwards walking in a pool
- Find a safe space outside free of obstacles
- Try backwards walking on a treadmill and hold on to the back or sides
- Remember to stretch and warm up before you start
- Start slowly and build intensity or speed each time you backwards walk
- Alternate between backwards and forwards walking
InsideTracker helps you live healthfully
InsideTracker provides a personal health analysis and data-driven wellness guide to help you add years to your life—and life to your years. Data from blood biomarkers, DNA, and physiomarkers like step count all contribute to a more holistic understanding of your health state. While there are health benefits to reverse walking, the body of evidence is still young and more research needs to be conducted, and done so in other populations. InsideTracker’s team of scientists consistently reviews the latest peer-reviewed, scientific literature in the healthspan space, sifting through trends to recommend the most reliable, evidence-based interventions that can help you live healthier longer. Learn more about InsideTracker’s scientific approach.