Walking Backwards—Is It a Leap Forward for Healthy Aging?

Forget forward, walk backwards. This surprising exercise trend may optimize your healthspan by boosting balance and core strength and even burning more calories.

Stevie Lyn Smith
By Stevie Lyn Smith
Caitlin Snethlage
Edited by Caitlin Snethlage

Updated April 18, 2024.

A close up of a person's shoes as they walk backwards.

As we age, staying active and maintaining balance becomes increasingly important. But what if there was a simple way to challenge your body and mind while reducing your risk of falls? Believe it or not, the answer might be in your daily walk—but in reverse.

Walking backwards might seem counterintuitive, but it offers unique benefits for healthy aging. It engages different muscle groups and improves balance and coordination. It may even help reduce knee pain.

Imagine the satisfaction of keeping your body strong well into your golden years. Walking backwards could be the key to unlocking these possibilities. That's why we'll explore the benefits, precautions, and ways to incorporate this exercise into your life.

Key takeaways

  • Reverse walking strengthens core and leg muscles, improving balance and flexibility while reducing fall risk.
  • It burns more calories, potentially improves VO2 max, and may even help with body composition, such as reducing body fat. InsideTracker can sync with your Oura Ring, Apple Watch, Garmin, or FitBit to help measure it.
  • The unfamiliar movement challenges your brain, enhancing focus, coordination, and potentially even memory function.
  • Walking backwards is suitable for active individuals, older adults, and even some rehabilitation patients with the approval of a healthcare provider. You should start slow, prioritize safety, and listen to your body.

Eight health benefits of walking backwards 

Backwards walking is an easy form of exercise that you can do anywhere. It can have benefits for several factors that influence your healthspan.

1. Boosts balance

Reverse walking engages the body's vestibular system, which controls balance. [1] It challenges you to move in a new way, leading to more independence later in life and ultimately contributing to a longer healthspan.

Physical health is crucial for maintaining independence later in life. Proper balance is essential for walking on uneven surfaces, getting dressed without assistance, and reaching for objects on high shelves.

2. Builds leg strength

Reverse walking engages different muscles than going forward. It emphasizes strengthening the quads and improving hip flexor flexibility. Your glutes and hamstrings work harder to propel you forward, reducing stress on your knee joint.

A 6-week study of 68 people with osteoarthritis explored the impact of reverse walking on muscle strength and knee pain. Those who did it for 10 minutes three times a week reported reduced knee pain. They also developed stronger quadriceps, which also affect stability. [2]

Strong leg muscles help maintain balance and decrease the risk of falls and fractures, which are associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.

3. Increases mobility

Walking backwards engages different muscles than doing it the other way around. It challenges your lower legs in new ways, leading to increased mobility in your hips, knees, and ankles.

Greater mobility means your joints can move through their full natural range, which is crucial for preventing injuries. This is especially important as we age when our ability to move tends to decrease. [1,2]

Note: By incorporating reverse walking into your routine, you can help maintain greater motor ability, make everyday activities easier, and promote independence as you age.

4. Enhances core strength

Walking backwards engages the core muscles to maintain proper balance, including those that directly support the spine.

The improved strength leads to better postural stability, which is the body's ability to control its position when moving. This improved stability prevents injuries and lets you complete your daily activities more efficiently. [1,2]

Strong core muscles are crucial for preventing injuries and helping you maintain an active lifestyle as you age.

5. Benefits cognition

The unfamiliar nature of reverse walking forces your brain to work harder. It requires increased focus on your surroundings, coordination, and spatial awareness as you navigate your environment. This mental challenge stimulates attention, concentration, and even memory. [3]

Note: Maintaining cognitive function is essential, especially as we get older. Mentally challenging activities like reverse walking may help keep your brain active.

6. Burns calories

Studies have shown that walking backwards can burn more calories, as measured by metabolic equivalents (METs). [4,5] Incorporating it into your routine can be a great way to boost your activity level and promote health.

Regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight are essential for reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

» Discover the best foods to slow aging, according to longevity experts

7. Increases VO2 max

Regular walking is fantastic for heart health and lung function. But, research suggests going in reverse might be an even better option for boosting cardiorespiratory fitness. VO2 max—a measure of the body's maximum oxygen usage—naturally declines as we get older.

A study on young women found that reverse walking for six weeks significantly improved their predicted VO2 max [6]. This suggests reverse walking could help enhance cardiovascular fitness, particularly for younger adults, although more research is needed.

Note: Oura Ring, Apple Watch, Garmin, or FitBit can estimate your VO2 max by syncing with InsideTracker. You get a deeper understanding of your fitness level, along with science-backed recommendations to live healthier and longer.

8. Improves body composition

Beyond boosting VO2 max, the same study on reverse walk training in young women discovered a significant dip in body fat percentage. It also hinted that this type of workout could have the same potential in other populations—but more research is needed. [6]

The positive impact may extend to muscle and bone health as well. When we get older, lean muscle mass and bone mineral density naturally decline. Consistent exercise—like reverse walking—can help us maintain both.

Note: A healthy body composition reduces the risk of chronic diseases like high blood pressure and heart disease. 

Who should do backwards walking?

Backwards walking can be beneficial for a wide range of people, including:

  • Active individuals: Backwards walking can add variety and challenge to active people's workouts by engaging different muscles and improving body awareness, leading to better overall movement.
  • Older adults: Reverse walking is a powerful tool for improving balance, maintaining muscle strength, and providing a fun mental and physical challenge that enhances longevity.
  • Rehabilitation patients: Healthcare providers may recommend this exercise to individuals with knee osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis. They can also suggest it to those recovering from a stroke or a traumatic brain injury. [7,8]

Note: Although the research supports some health benefits, consult your healthcare provider to determine whether this exercise is appropriate for you.

Tips to walk backwards safely

Here are some tips to get started with backwards walking as part of your exercise routine:

  • Start in a pool: Walking backwards in a shallow pool helps ease into the movement with minimal impact on your joints. The water provides natural resistance and buoyancy, enhancing balance and stability.
  • Warm-up: Proper warm-up is crucial for any exercise. Perform dynamic stretches focusing on your ankles, knees, and core to prepare your body for the unfamiliar movement.
  • Listen to your body: Start slow and gradually increase the distance, speed, and duration of your backwards walks as your balance and coordination improve.
  • Mix it up: Incorporate backwards walking into your existing routine, alternating it with going forward in intervals
  • Use support: If you're just starting, try using a treadmill set to a slow speed. Hold onto the handrails or sides for added stability as you get comfortable with the backwards motion.
  • Clear the path: Find a safe, flat surface free of obstacles like uneven terrain, cracks, or loose objects. Parks, open fields, or indoor walking tracks are ideal choices.

Take steps back for healthy aging

This unique exercise can be a valuable addition to your routine. It boosts balance and core strength, enhances cognitive function, and burns calories. If you want to add variety to your workouts and improve your overall health, try backward walking.

Understanding your body's internal age can be another valuable tool in your healthspan journey. InsideTracker's InnerAge 2.0 analyzes data from blood biomarkers, DNA, and physio markers like step count to calculate your biological age compared to your chronological age.

This personalized assessment can provide valuable insights into where you might excel or areas that could benefit from improvement. InnerAge 2.0 then offers science-backed recommendations to target those areas and potentially help you optimize your health and longevity.

Disclaimer: InsideTracker doesn't diagnose or treat medical conditions. Consult your physician if you have any health concerns.


[1] H.-G. Cha, T.-H. Kim, and M.-K. Kim, “Therapeutic efficacy of walking backward and forward on a slope in normal adults,” Journal of Physical Therapy Science, vol. 28, no. 6, pp. 1901–1903, Jan. 2016, doi: 10.1589/jpts.28.1901. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27390443/

[2] A. H. Alghadir, S. Anwer, B. Sarkar, A. K. Paul, and D. Anwar, “Effect of 6-week retro or forward walking program on pain, functional disability, quadriceps muscle strength, and performance in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial (retro-walking trial),” BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, vol. 20, no. 1, Apr. 2019, doi: 10.1186/s12891-019-2537-9. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30967128/

[3] M. B. Correno, C. Hansen, M. Chardon, T. Milane, E. Bianchini, and N. Vuillerme, “Association between Backward Walking and Cognition in Parkinson Disease: A Systematic Review,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health/International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 19, no. 19, p. 12810, Oct. 2022, doi: 10.3390/ijerph191912810. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36232110/ 

[4] B. E. Ainsworth et al., “2011 Compendium of Physical activities,” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 43, no. 8, pp. 1575–1581, Aug. 2011, doi: 10.1249/mss.0b013e31821ece12. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21681120/ 

[5] B. E. Ainsworth, “2011 Compendium of Physical activities.” [Online]. Available: https://cdn-links.lww.com/permalink/mss/a/mss_43_8_2011_06_13_ainsworth_202093_sdc1.pdf. Available: https://download.lww.com/wolterskluwer_vitalstream_com/PermaLink/MSS/A/MSS_43_8_2011_06_13_AINSWORTH_202093_SDC1.pdf 

[6] E. Terblanche, C. Page, J. Kroff, and R. Venter, “The effect of backward locomotion training on the body composition and cardiorespiratory fitness of young women,” International Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 214–219, Apr. 2005, doi: 10.1055/s-2004-820997. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15776337/ 

[7] D. K. Rose, L. DeMark, E. J. Fox, D. J. Clark, and P. Wludyka, “A backward walking training program to improve balance and mobility in acute stroke: a pilot randomized controlled trial,” Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 12–21, Jan. 2018, doi: 10.1097/npt.0000000000000210. Available: https://journals.lww.com/jnpt/fulltext/2018/01000/a_backward_walking_training_program_to_improve.3.aspx 

[8] E. M. Edwards et al., “Backward Walking and Dual-Task Assessment Improve Identification of Gait Impairments and Fall Risk in Individuals with MS,” Multiple Sclerosis International, vol. 2020, pp. 1–10, Sep. 2020, doi: 10.1155/2020/6707414. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32963832/