The Health Benefits of Walking Backward, According to Fitness Experts
You've heard it time and time again: Walking is one of the best forms of exercise for your body and your brain. In addition to being free and easy to do inside your home, on vacation, using poles as part of a hike, with your pup and beyond, walking has been proven to boost mood, improve fertility, promote weight loss, boost heart health and so much more. (And if you've been convinced that only running and higher-impact exercise "counts," we can confirm that walking can be a legit, super-effective workout.)
But how about walking backward?
It's not just for kids on the playground keeping an eye on the opposing team's dodgeball or capture-the-flag players. Some have suggested that 100 steps backward are equivalent to 1,000 steps forward; now, that's much more than child's play.
While that's yet to be scientifically proven, "mostly because our gait pattern changes when we walk backward (as opposed to forward), it is difficult to say with 100% certainty that, yes, indeed, 100 steps backward is equivalent to 1,000 steps forward. The stride length is often shorter than when we are moving in a natural forward trajectory," explains Erin Nitschke, Ed.D., a certified personal trainer, ACE health coach, fitness nutrition specialist, therapeutic exercise specialist and health and human performance college professor in Sheridan, Wyoming. "That said, walking backward is uniquely more challenging than walking 'normally.'"
Read on to see how to step up your walking workout by taking it back.
Related: This Is How Often You Should Exercise Each Week, According to the World Health Organization
The Health Benefits of Walking Backward
"Walking—and doing other motions—backward can be a way to add some locomotion to your training. It can be a new mental and physical challenge if you've never tried it before," says Katie Kollath, CPT, a personal trainer and co-founder of Barpath Fitness in Golden, Colorado.
Since we utilize muscles differently and it's a slightly more unnatural movement, Nitschke says it will likely burn more calories than walking forward because "the body has to work harder than if you were walking naturally."
In addition, studies hint that walking backward may:
- Improve balance, coordination, body awareness and overall walking form
- Boost muscle strength and endurance
- Offer relief for certain injuries in which forward walking is painful (as always, consult with a doctor or physical therapist for injury-specific exercise advice)
- Accelerate metabolism
- Combat exercise boredom
- Increase exercise motivation (since it's novel)
- Challenge your brain and muscles
- Sharpen the brain (as learning new tasks tends to do)
- Create less force on the knees than regular walking
When we walk forward, the heel strikes first; then we roll through the ball of the foot to the toes, where we push off to create forward momentum. In backward walking, the toe strikes first, then the ball of the foot, then the heel plants. It's entirely different, Nitschke says.
Who Should (and Shouldn't) Try Walking Backward
Individuals who have injuries with which exercise is not recommended, as well as those with serious balance concerns or any fall risk, should steer clear. Otherwise, anyone who can safely walk forward could practice walking backward, Nitschke says.
Nitschke recommends adding a few minutes of backward walking to your warmup and cooldown. Using a treadmill might sound more dangerous than walking backward on a track or outside, but thanks to the handrails, the equipment can actually be a boon. If you have access to a treadmill, while holding on with each hand on opposite sides of the belt, try a slow speed of around 1 mph. Once you're comfortable, pick up the pace, eventually working up to a brisker rate of about 3 mph. Anytime you feel like you're getting a bit out of control, simply slow down and concentrate on the motion to regain your composure.
But don't think your options end at walking backward. Shuffling backward (keeping an eye out for any obstacles, of course) and reverse bear crawls "are more advanced forms of backward movement," Kollath says. "Moving in different directions—laterally, backward and diagonal—and in different planes is important in all of our fitness routines throughout life."
The Bottom Line
Walking is one of the best exercises you can practice for your overall health, plus it's free! Frequent walking can help you live longer, boost your mood, strengthen your joints and muscles and more. Furthermore, walking backward can improve your coordination, increase your physical endurance and sharpen your brain. But if walking isn't your thing, don't fret—your favorite exercise also provides great benefits.