Walking Backward Can Improve Joints, Arthritis and Overall Health


Walking Backward Helps You Move Ahead with Joint Health

Experts explain how moving in reverse can take pressure off your knees and improve flexibility

Illustration of a man and a path of footsteps in front of him
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Walking backward down the block or in the park might seem like a bizarre way to get around, but a recent TikTok trend is lauding its potential health benefits.

Social media influencers claim that backward walking—or “retro-walking”—strengthens the body and brain. TikTok isn’t always a credible source for health information (remember when people were taking laxatives to lose weight?), but walking backward is an exercise that at least some health experts can get behind. Physical therapist Kristyn Holc of Atlantic Sports Health Physical Therapy in New Jersey says doctors have been recommending retro-walking for decades; she adds that it is especially helpful for older adults who are more likely to experience joint pain. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four adults aged 45 to 64 have been diagnosed with arthritis. And a number of experts say walking backward can help take you forward when it comes to strengthening the lower body—no matter your age.

What Are the Health Benefits of Backward Walking?


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Retro-walking (or retroambulation, as some scientists call it) moves the joints in reverse; this engages different muscle groups than usual and relieves some pressure on the knees. Walking forward uses muscles on the front of the thigh—the quadriceps, or “quads”—but Holc says these muscles are even more strongly activated when moving in reverse. Greater quad activity causes the knee to stretch more, which can help alleviate knee pain and reduce muscle tightness. Importantly, walking backward relieves pressure on the inner side of the knee, where many older adults develop arthritis, Holc says.

Moving in reverse also works out your butt. It forces your gluteal muscles to repeatedly contract and thus strengthens them over time, Holc explains. Exercising the glutes also creates some extra stretching in the hip flexors, a muscle group involved in posture, balance and stabilizing the lower spine. Stretching this group can help alleviate back pain.Because muscles and joints become less flexible with age, “the muscles within your hips and in your bottom become really important for promoting functional mobility and reducing pain,” Holc says.

Retro-walking exercises also improve proprioception, the ability to sense the body’s movements and position in space, says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of the book The Micro-Workout Plan. When coordinating movement, the human brain prioritizes visual data over other sensory information, such as hearing and smell. Reflexes and eyesight both weaken with age, however, making older adults more prone to losing their balance and falling. Walking backward challenges you to actively think about where you’re going and forces the brain to collect more information than usual from your other senses, Holland explains.

How to Start Backward Walking Exercises Safely

People can go for a walk almost anywhere, and the same applies to walking in reverse—but safety should be kept in mind. Obviously, the reduced field of vision increases the risk of bumping into obstacles. Holc and Holland both recommend starting on a treadmill, if possible; it eliminates the need to constantly look over your shoulder, and you can hold on to the handrails while getting used to this kind of movement. A person can also use a treadmill’s safety clip to automatically stop the machine if they slip—a helpful feature for older adults who are prone to head injuries and hip fractures from a fall. Holland says that people with preexisting musculoskeletal conditions should consult their doctor or work with a trainer to help them with the exercise.

If you walk backward outside, Holc advises going with a walking buddy. This person walks forward and acts as your eyes, preventing you from running into objects or other people—or entering traffic. People should also choose a familiar route that has few potential obstacles. For example, walking backward on an outdoor track would likely be safer than on a trail in the woods.

Holland recommends starting slowly to get the brain accustomed to walking backward. For a 30-minute walk, he advises alternating between retro-walking and walking forward for two minutes each at about 0.5 miles per hour. As you get more comfortable walking backward, you can extend the time or challenge yourself at different speeds and inclines. The extra resistance while walking backward will lead to greater muscle activation.

If you eventually build up to 10 straight minutes of walking backward three times a week, you could start noticing a difference in balance and joint strength after about four weeks at this activity level, Holc says. But even sparing a minute or two each day to move in reverse can help.



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