If you're looking to get results from your exercise routine (whatever "results" means to you), doing low-impact exercises might seem like less bang for your buck. Anything that starts with "low" sounds less hardcore, so it must be less effective, right? Not exactly.
"There's this misconception that low-impact exercise isn't effective for improving or maintaining fitness," Raymond Peralta, DPT, an orthopedic physical therapist at NYU Langone Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "But if the intensity is correct, it is possible to get in shape and lose body fat with low-impact exercise."
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What Are Low-Impact Exercises?
When talking about "impact" in terms of exercise, what we're really getting at is how much force a certain movement puts on your body.
Movements that put a high amount of stress on the joints include jumping, running, skipping — basically anything that has you taking one or both feet off the ground, and then landing again. When you land, your joints take on a lot of impact force from the ground.
"Low-impact basically just means putting less physical stress on the joints," says Pete McCall, a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and host of the All About Fitness podcast. Any movement that doesn't subject your joints to that impact force from the ground can be considered low-impact.
Another way to think about low-impact exercises: Movements that have at least one foot on the ground at all times will have a lower impact than exercises where both feet come off the ground, Peralta says. And exercises where both feet stay on the ground will have the lowest impact of all.
One great example is the low-impact split squat, where you have both feet on the ground and simply bend your knees and straighten them again. Compare that to a high-impact split lunge jump, in which you start in a split squat, jump off the ground, land again and repeat.
"This could be illustrated in the difference between walking and running, in which the impact of walking is typically 1 to 1.5 times the body weight, while the impact of running ranges from 2 to 3 times the body weight," Peralta explains.
Other examples of low-impact exercises include swimming, cycling, using the elliptical machine, rowing and yoga.
4 Benefits of Low-Impact Exercises
What are low-impact exercises good for? A lot! Putting less impact on the joints can be a good thing — for people of all ages and fitness levels. Here are four reasons you should stop sleeping on low-impact exercises.
1. They're Gentle on the Joints
The biggest benefit of low-impact exercises is that they're much easier on the joints than exercises that have you jumping, hopping or otherwise lifting your feet off the ground and then slamming them back down with force. This is a plus for lots of reasons.
"It allows someone with restrictions, such as joint pain from arthritis or injury recovery, to get the benefits of exercise while minimizing the risk from high-impact exercise, which may exacerbate joint pain or delay recovery from an injury," Peralta says.
Older adults, people living with obesity, de-conditioned adults and those who are new to exercise may also benefit from low-impact exercise — it can help them get into an exercise routine while reducing the risk of injury to the joints.
"Lower-impact exercises allow you to train more consistently and more frequently for the long haul without having to necessarily spend as much time recovering."
But less impact is also beneficial for anyone who wants to stay mobile and keep their joints healthy in the long term — even if they don't have injuries or pre-existing joint conditions.
"Even for people who are healthy — meaning those without injuries or pre-existing joint conditions — doing high-impact exercises on a continual basis will eventually lead to wear and tear in those joints," says Jason Pak, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified personal trainer, USA Weightlifting-certified sports performance coach and co-owner of Achieve Fitness Boston.
That makes low-impact exercises more sustainable over the long haul. Reducing wear and tear on the joints is important for keeping them healthy and functional as you age.
No matter your joint health, it's a good idea to make a majority of your workouts low-impact, says Lauren Pak, a NASM-certified personal trainer and co-founder of Achieve Fitness Boston. She says that for most people she trains, she programs their workouts with about 75 to 80 percent low-impact exercises.
Because if you can get a great workout, burn calories and build muscle (more on that in a minute) with minimal strain on your joints, why wouldn't you?
Minimizing the impact of your workouts is a good way to stick to your routine, too. "The more high-impact exercise you do, the more recovery your body needs to go through," Jason Pak says. "Lower-impact exercises allow you to train more consistently and more frequently for the long haul without having to necessarily spend as much time recovering as high-impact exercises would."
However, if you're lifting heavy weights and really maxing out your muscles, you want to make sure you're resting sufficiently in between workouts to let your muscles recover — no matter how much impact is involved. The difference is that low-impact moves will reduce how much time you need to rest to avoid joint pain and other injuries that can happen as a result of the force used during your workout.
2. Low-Impact Exercises Can Help You Burn Calories and Build Muscle
Low-impact doesn't automatically mean low intensity. (Though, it's true that low-intensity workouts are typically going to be low-impact.) There are plenty of exercises that are, by nature, high-intensity yet low-impact.
For example, battle ropes are very challenging to your cardiovascular system, but since your feet stay on the ground, there's no impact involved, Lauren Pak says. Kettlebell swings are another great high-intensity, low-impact exercise.
Strength training, in its purest form, is extremely low-impact. Anything that has you stationary and lifting weight — like squats, deadlifts or bench presses — is going to be easier on your joints, but it can be pretty intense at the same time.
That's because simply adding heavier weight will make any strength exercise more intense, Jason Pak says. In fact, the phrase "increase the intensity" is often synonymous with "increase the weight," he says. Even though there's less strain on the joints, lifting heavier weight will put more demand on your muscles and your heart, resulting in higher calorie burn and more potential for strength gains.
"You can develop more muscle mass with low-impact strength training, and that, in turn, can increase your metabolic rate," Jason Pak says. High-impact exercises are typically body-weight only, so the main way to increase intensity is to move faster. While it might result in more calories burned during the exercise, it's not the best way to build muscle mass or strength, he says.
The way to build muscle is to progressively overload the muscles, which allows you to continually subject your muscles to a challenging load.
You can progressively overload the muscles a few different ways, Jason Pak says: Simply lift heavier weights or use resistance bands to level-up body-weight exercises in different planes of motion.
You can also put more consistent and constant tension on your muscles by slowing down the tempo. Putting the muscles under more tension and/or increasing the time they are under tension is what pushes them to adapt and grow stronger.
By contrast, high-impact activities put your muscles under less tension because you're constantly moving or jumping and coming out of the contraction versus staying in it, he says.
3. They'll Improve Your Mobility
A lot of low-impact exercises are great for enhancing mobility, McCall says. And while many people neglect mobility moves, it's important if you want to keep your body working like a well-oiled machine.
"Low-impact, body-weight exercises get you moving your body in all directions and planes of motion, without putting any force on the joints," McCall says.
When you take the impact out of a workout, you can really focus on moving through a full range of motion and concentrate on form. Hip mobility work, glute-strengthening exercises and spinal twists are all joint-friendly moves that will help your body function better.
A mobility workout is also the perfect active recovery option, McCall says. "If you slam yourself in a hard workout on Monday and want to move the next day but are a little sore, doing a low-impact, body-weight workout on Tuesday is perfect," he says, because it promotes blood flow to ease soreness, gets you a little sweaty and keeps your muscles and joints moving through a full range of motion.
For example, consider doing a gentle yoga flow. The tension-relieving poses get your muscles moving through their full range and challenge your strength without jumping.
4. Low-Impact Exercises Are Excellent for Stress Relief
"Low-intensity, mobility workouts are just a great way to relieve stress," McCall says. And if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that we're all feeling the tension more than ever before.
According to a December 2017 review in Studies in Sport Humanities, exercise has a positive effect on mental health and one's ability to cope with challenging situations.
While research hasn't pinpointed exactly what type of exercise is best for stress relief (the 2017 review focused on aerobic exercise, in particular), the general consensus is that getting your body moving in some way can have physiological and psychological perks.
If you feel like you need to move and sweat a little every day to keep your mood in check, low-impact workouts are a great option to avoid overtraining. The last thing you want to do when you're already stressed out is to exacerbate any existing joint issues and give yourself something more to worry about.
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