High-impact exercises (like running, box jumps and burpees) torch a ton of calories and get your heart racing, but they aren't mandatory. And the are far from the only option to strengthen your cardio.
Enter, low-impact cardio exercise. It gets your heart rate up, boosts you ticker's health and can help you get your recommended 150 minutes of weekly moderate-intensity exercise. Plus, it protects your joints and cuts down on your risk of overtraining and burnout.
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Here's everything you need to know about low-impact cardio, its benefits and the best types of low-impact cardio workouts to try.
What Is Low-Impact Cardio?
Low-impact cardio is simply exercising "in a way in which there isn't high stress or shock loading [to the body]," says Janet Hamilton, CSCS, a clinical exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Running Strong in Atlanta.
With low-impact cardio, at least one foot remains on the ground at all times, so your joints, like your knees and ankles, absorb less impact from the force you exert on them. For example, running is a high-impact activity because both feet are off the ground at the same time at faster speeds. Walking involves having only one foot off the ground at a time, so while it carries some impact, it's much less, she says.
Some exercises, like swimming, puts zero impact on your joints, Hamilton says. "There are no gravitational forces pulling you down."
Other examples of low-impact cardio include working out on the elliptical, rowing, dancing, cycling and hiking. And while these workouts are easier on your joints, it doesn't necessarily mean they're any easier on your heart.
You can make low-impact cardio exercise just as intense as your high-impact running and plyometric workouts if you pick up the pace, reduce your recovery time in between sets or add resistance. Interval workouts can also be low-impact and high-intensity by making the effort harder and the rest periods shorter.
5 Low-Impact Cardio Benefits
Whether or not you're dealing with joint issues, low- (or no-) impact cardio exercises have a place in every person's training and workout schedule, Hamilton says.
Here are some ways low-impact cardio can benefit your health and fitness.
1. Low-Impact Cardio Reduces the Risk of Injury
Low-impact cardio exercises change the loading patterns on your muscles, tendons and bones, Hamilton says.
"Your body responds to stress by getting stronger," she explains. "But by doing some lower-impact activities that stress you differently, you can help reduce the risk of overuse injuries."
They also minimize stress of the body's joints to help reduce the risk of injury in those with existing osteoarthritis, autoimmune conditions and other joint problems.
2. It's a Great Way to Ease Into Exercise
"Low-impact cardio can be good for people who are just beginning to work out, or for those who are a little older, whose joints, tendons and ligaments aren't as agile," says Cassandra "Coach Cass" Nuamah, a certified health coach and Kukuwa Fitness dance instructor. "Everybody can use low-impact exercise in a way that will help them maintain fitness and help avoid injury."
Because low-impact cardio reduces the risk of overuse injuries, it can help you get into a consistent workout habit from day 1 of your plan. It trains your body to adapt to basic movement patterns with proper form — enabling you to progress your workouts safely and effectively.
Hamilton says an ideal low-impact exercise for those returning or new to physical activity is walking.
"It doesn't take a lot of talent or skill or technique," she says. "Walking is natural and easy, and there are very few barriers to getting started."
3. Low-Impact Cardio Strengthens Your Heart
All types of cardio exercise — low-impact, high-impact, low-intensity, high-intensity — help strengthen your heart. But, Hamilton says, the harder you make your heart work (the higher your heart rate), the stronger it gets. So consider increasing the intensity of your low-impact workouts.
For example, while a slow walk is certainly good for your heart, power walking or going for a hard bike ride or swim is even better for it.
"If your body can tolerate higher-intensity workouts, then doing some of that every week is a good idea," she says. Research shows that daily moderate physical activity is associated with the greatest reductions in health risks like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.
If you are new to high-intensity exercise, talk to your doctor about any health considerations before getting started.
4. It Promotes Muscular Endurance
Because they allow your joints to absorb less force, low-impact cardio workouts like cycling, rowing and the elliptical can help improve your overall athletic performance.
That's why many cross-training programs for running include low-impact cardio, Hamilton says. By keeping your joints healthy, you're able to do longer periods of exercise with a low-impact activity, therefore increasing your cardiovascular endurance.
If biking and rowing feel monotonous and aren't your thing, consider circuit training, in which you rotate doing a variety of low-impact strength-training exercises with little or no rest in between. For example, you can do a set of body-weight squats, followed by a set of battle ropes, overhead dumbbell presses, bent-over rows and lunges.
5. Low-Impact Cardio Can Help You Maintain a Healthy Weight
Just like high-impact cardio, low-impact cardio helps you burn calories and fat, and improve your blood sugar control.
For example, in the average adult, moderate cardio on a rowing machine burns between 200 and 300 calories in just 30 minutes, according to Harvard University. Integrate high-intensity intervals, and you can expect to burn calories both during and after your workout as your body recovers.
The Best Low-Impact Cardio Workouts
If you need to take it easy on your body or just want to mix up your high-impact workout routine, try out these low-impact cardio exercises.
"There are so many different options," Hamilton says. "It's not that any one is better or worse — each option loads the body differently."
If you're coming back from an injury or an exercise hiatus, Hamilton says walking is one of the best low-impact activities you can do, especially if you're a runner.
"Walking has the best carryover back to running," she says, noting that even 30 minutes of walking can bring health benefits.
In terms of biomechanics, biking is not remotely similar to running, says Hamilton. That makes it great for cross-training.
"It's a nice way to get your heart rate up and breathe harder, without pushing any issues you might have from working so hard in your primary sport," she says.
Biking is a non-weight-bearing exercise, making it possible to ride for hours without any impact on your joints. Heading for the hills will guarantee a high-intensity workout, good for the heart.
Dancing might not be top of mind when it comes to low-impact cardio workouts because people equate it with perfection and a professional career, Nuamah says.
"But just because you're not a professional runner doesn't mean you can't run," she says. Ditto with dancing.
A dance workout is an effective substitute for traditional cardio workouts and offers the same aerobic benefits if done regularly, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery.
4. Swimming or Aqua Workouts
Like biking, swimming is a non-weight-bearing exercise. Learning technical strokes can be tricky and can require professional instruction, Hamilton says. However, for a good workout, you don't have to swim with the prowess of an Olympian. Just keep moving!
A alternative to swimming is aqua jogging, essentially running in the water without hitting the bottom, as well as aqua aerobics. Both involve little to no impact while challenging your muscles and cardio to a high degree.
Rowing machines are more popular than ever as a way to work and strengthen both your cardio and muscles simultaneously. With each movement, you work your lower body, core back and arms — all while seated.
Master proper form at slow pace before progressing to faster, more aggressive strokes. On many new at-home rowing machines, you can also adjust the intensity of your workout by increasing the resistance.
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