Walking Downhill Gives Surprising Benefits

Study Shows Downhill Walking Lowers Blood Sugar

Nordic Walking Downhill in Austria
Nordic walking downhill in Austria. Westend61/Getty Images

Researchers have found that hills are good both ways. Walking uphill gives you a cardiovascular workout and lowers triglycerides, but going downhill has now proven superior for lowering blood sugar levels. Take the hills both ways to reduce LDL cholesterol. Dr. Heinz Drexel reported his findings at a American Heart Association scientific conference.

Walking Downhill or Downstairs May be a Good Start - with Health Benefits

Dr. Drexel says that those who find walking uphill difficult can get many benefits by beginning with downhill walking. His study took 45 healthy but sedentary people and had them hike either up or down a steep mountain in the Austrian alps each day for two months, then switch to the opposite for another two months. In this way he compared each of the test subjects to themselves to see what the effects would be.

He checked their blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides 36 hours after each hike. He didn't expect to see as much benefit from those walking downhill, but they showed a lowering of blood sugar levels not seen in those hiking only uphill. Lower blood sugar may reduce the risk of Type II diabetes.

Walking downhill is a good start for people who don't like walking uphill, according to Dr. Drexel. It can help build up tolerance to exercise while still being pleasant and giving the walker a good vista to enjoy. Now that he has found health benefits for downhill walking, there is even more reason to get started.
How to Start Walking

Downhill vs. Uphill Walking

Downhill walking uses eccentric muscle contraction. It also can place strain on the knees and be difficult for those with knee problems or iliotibial band friction syndrome.
How to Walk Downhill

Uphill walking uses concentric muscle contraction and raises the heart rate more than walking dowhill or on the level. The huffing and puffing and sweating from a raised heart rate is an exercise deterrent for some people.
How to Walk Uphill

Hills for Flatlanders

While fewer of us live in the Alps, most people have access to stairs which are as steep as any hillside. If you hate going up, you can still get good health benefits by taking the stairs down and the elevator up. Any building five stories tall can give you a few minutes going down, then a ride back up to resume a downstairs workout, or vice versa.

Another way to add hills into a workout if you live in the flats is to use ramps of parking garages or overpasses. However, those are shorter and have risks of tangling with traffic.

Treadmill Hills - Incline and Decline

Most treadmills have an incline feature, which you can adjust to simulate hills. It's less common that they have a decline feature to simulate going downhill, although this is being seen on more and more models. The problem with only using a treadmill that has incline and not decline is that you are always going up or on the level and never going downhill. This gives you an imbalanced workout that won't translate well to walking uphill and downhill outdoors.

If your treadmill only has an incline feature, you need to train your downhill muscles but seeking out hills to walk downhill outdoors. Going down stairs will help a bit, but it isn't quite the same as walking downhill and the effects that has on your feet and muscles.

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  • AHA 2004 Scientific Sessions: Abstract 3826. Presented Nov. 10, 2004.