Is Low-Impact Exercise Effective?

Fitness, Pain + Recovery, Training Advice

By: // May 10, 2018

When you hear the words “low-impact exercise” what comes to mind? Elderly ladies doing water aerobics? A super slow yoga class that doesn’t burn too many calories? The question on a lot of people minds is: is low impact exercise effective? The answer is absolutely! While there’s nothing wrong with either of those scenarios (water aerobics are actually a kick-butt workout, trust us!), low-impact workouts are more than meets the eye. They can provide a great way to work out without putting undue stress on your body, whether you’re dealing with the aches and pains of aging or simply want to give your body a break in between more high-impact workouts. The best part? Low-impact exercise doesn’t have to feel like a cop-out for a solid sweat session. Read on to discover what low-impact exercise is, why it’s beneficial, and why low-impact does NOT have to mean low-intensity.

What is Low Impact Exercise?

Low-impact exercise is any exercise that minimizes the force placed on the body and its joints (think: knees, hips, and ankles.) Because of this, low-impact exercise doesn’t incorporate jumping movements (called plyometrics) into its workouts, and typically means you keep one foot on the ground at all time. For example, walking is the low-impact version of running, because in running you experience an almost jump-like motion as you run, which you don’t when you walk. And regular squats are low-impact, while jumping squats are high-impact because they involve a jumping or plyometric movement that results in more impact on your joints as you come back down to the ground. There are some exceptions to the “one foot on the ground” idea, however. Think of swimming: this definitely qualifies as a low impact exercise as it takes the pressure of the joints while you’re in the water, however your feet may not always be on the ground, for instance if you’re swimming laps.

Related: The Case For Low Intensity Exercise

What Are The Benefits Of Low-Impact Exercise?

Whether you’re dealing with joint pain, the aches and pains of aging, recovering from surgery or illness, or simply want to give your joints a break, low-impact exercise is a great choice for your body (and it doesn’t have to mean low-intensity, which we’ll get to in a minute!). So what are the specific benefits of low-impact exercise? 

Low Impact Exercise…

  • Puts less strain on your joints
  • Can give you a great cardiovascular or strength workout without using jumping movements
  • Is a great form of cross-training to use different muscle groups and athletic abilities
  • Can improve balance and flexibility
  • Allows you to build strength and endurance without injuring yourself
  • Is easy to adapt to your preferred level of intensity

Who Is Low-Impact Exercise For?

Group on walkers on trail doing low impact exercise

Low-impact exercise is naturally a great choice for people suffering from joint pain or simply the aches and pains of aging. But overall, people of all ages can benefit from low-impact exercise. Your body needs to mix it up (aka: cross-train!) in order to prevent injury and build both endurance and muscle. Yes, it can be addicting once you get into the groove of high-impact workouts that use a lot of plyometrics, but the truth is that no matter what your age, your joints will need a break at some point. People who are recovering from illness, getting back into workouts, currently pregnant, or just looking to mix it up can all benefit from incorporating low-impact workouts into their weekly routines.

Why Low Impact Doesn’t Have To Mean Low Intensity

Many people confuse low-intensity exercise and low-impact exercise as being one in the same. But they’re not! Low-intensity exercise refers to keeping your heart rate at 60% of its maximum rate for 30-60 minutes. Low-impact, as we discussed, refers more to the stress you’re putting on your joints through how much direct force they’re encountering. The truth is, with most low-impact workouts you can still work really hard (keeping the intensity) while the movements remain low-impact (non-jumping). Think of a low-impact activity like walking. If you want to up the intensity of that exercise, you can power walk by increasing your speed. You can pump your arms to add in more range of motion. And you can add an incline by seeking out hills, which will work different muscles in your legs and provide more of a challenge. With low-impact workouts, the intensity is really up to you.

As a general rule of thumb, if you ever want to up the intensity during a low-impact workout you can do one of three things:

  • increase your speed
  • make your range of motion bigger, or
  • push your hands up overhead (anytime your hands are above your heart, it will increase the heart rate)

Examples of how to up your intensity during low-impact workouts: 

If you’re doing a bodyweight workout that’s low-impact:

Go a little deeper in your regular squats or lunges. This increases your range of motion! Or, you can add dumbbells in each hand, or pump your arms up over your head during each rep to increase your heart rate. Walking lunges are also a great way to up the intensity on your low-impact bodyweight movements.

If you’re seeking out yoga so you can go easy on your joints:

Try a yoga sculpt class. Anyone who’s ever taken one will tell you: they’re no joke! They often incorporate light weights so you get more of a workout while still incorporating some of those flowing Vinyasa movements and going easier on the joints.

If you’re hopping on the elliptical:

The elliptical is a great choice for low-impact exercise, but many people go at a snail’s pace and then wonder why they aren’t burning any calories. Try this Kick-Butt Elliptical Interval Workout which uses intervals to get your heart rate up and increase the intensity for short bursts of time.

As you can see, you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to low-impact exercise. Just because you’re choosing forms of movement that are easier on your joints doesn’t mean the workout itself needs to be easy. Don’t be afraid to add some different challenges like the ones highlighted above to up your calorie burn, sweat a little more, and get a solid workout in that’s still joint-friendly.

Best Forms Of Low-Impact Exercise

So, now that we’ve discussed what low-impact exercise is and how it can benefit you (and how you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to intensity!) what are the best forms of low-impact exercise?

  • Walking
  • Biking
  • Using the Elliptical
  • Rowing Machine
  • Yoga Classes
  • Water Aerobics
  • Swimming
  • And more!

There are also plenty of at-home workouts you can do that are low-impact. Check out the following suggestions below that let you burn calories, build strength, and go easy on your joints—all in the comfort of your own home:

Low-Impact Exercise Videos:

10 Minute No Running Cardio Workout

Or try our new LIFT program on Get Healthy U TV: an entire program devoted to low impact routines that will leave you sweating, but are more joint-friendly.

Chris Freytag and Jodi Sussner LIFT (Low Impact Functional Training) workout video

Whether you have joint pain, are currently pregnant, looking to get back into exercise, or simply cross-training and mixing things up in between high-impact workouts, low-impact exercise is a great thing to incorporate into your week. You don’t have to feel like a workout is “easy” just because it doesn’t place undue stress on your joints. To the contrary, low-impact exercise really allows you to be in control of your intensity, letting you work as hard as you want according to your specific needs and goals.

READ THIS NEXT: The Beginner’s Guide To Swimming

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1 Comment

on April 22, 2020 at 10:45 AM Reply

My sister had an accident and she suffers from joint pain since then. I found it interesting when you said that low-impact exercising can benefit people that suffer from joint pains. I will recommend her to look for a fitness center where she can train low-impact exercising to help her feel better.

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