Home Health Why walking backwards can be good for your health and brain

Why walking backwards can be good for your health and brain


On an apparent wager to win $20,000 (about £4,250 at the time), a 50-year-old cigar-shop owner called Patrick Harmon embarked on a curious challenge in the summer of 1915 – he planned to walk backwards from San Francisco to New York City. 

With the aid of a friend and a small car mirror attached to his chest to help him see where he was going, Harmon made the 3,900 miles (6,300km) journey in 290 days, apparently walking every step backwards. Harmon claimed the journey made his ankles so strong that “it would take a sledge hammer blow to sprain them”.   

Perhaps he was onto something.

According to research, walking backwards can have surprising benefits for both your physical health and your brain, as Michael Mosley recently explored in a recent episode of the BBC podcast and Radio 4 show Just One Thing.

Retro-walking, as walking backwards is known in academic circles, has a rich history. There are reports dating back to the early 19th Century of people walking hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles, in reverse. Many were the result of impulsive bets and others were simply attempts to claim the bragging rights to a bizarre new record.

But due to the difference in biomechanics, backwards walking can actually bring some physical benefits. It is often used in physiotherapy to relieve back pain, knee problems and arthritis. Some studies even suggest that backwards walking can positively affect cognitive abilities such as memory, reaction time and problem-solving skills.

The practice of walking backwards for health purposes is thought to have originated in ancient China, but it has received attention from researchers more recently in the US and Europe as a way of improving sports performance and to build muscle strength.