The Ultimate Guide to Low-Impact Exercise for Weight Loss

Low-impact workouts can help you lose weight by burning calories and building muscle, all while protecting your joints.
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Low-impact exercise has a reputation for being, well, ​easy.​ Which means that it can't possibly help you lose weight, right? Wrong.

Low-impact workouts keep pressure and pain off of your joints. But they still burn calories and build metabolism-supporting muscle, which is ultimately what's needed for successful weight and fat loss. And they can still be plenty challenging if you make an effort to keep up the intensity.

Here's a look at what counts as low-impact exercise, who can benefit from it the most and how it can help you reach your weight-loss goals faster. Plus, three low-impact workouts to help get you started.

What Are Low-Impact Workouts?

Low-impact workouts are those that put little to no pressure on your joints — think walking, swimming, yoga, cycling and the elliptical. Unlike higher-impact activities, like running, plyometrics and gymnastics, there's no hard pounding when your feet hit the ground, and you have at least one foot on the ground throughout the workout. So you're less likely to feel sore or get injured during or after exercise.

Low-impact workouts can be a good fit for just about any workout plan or fitness goal. "Low-impact exercises are great for individuals who are new to working out or athletes recovering from an injury," explains Kevin Robinson, PT, an orthopedic certified specialist , doctor of science at the Performance Therapy Institute in Franklin, Tennessee. "They're also good for rest days to recover from a higher-impact workout"

Even though low-impact exercises are easy on your joints, they can still give you a challenging sweat session.

"While most high-impact exercises are also high intensity, it's possible for low-impact exercises to be either high- or low-intensity," explains Cathy Richards, an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)-certified exercise physiologist. You can make walking, cycling or swimming more challenging, for instance, just by picking up the pace.

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How Low-Impact Exercise Helps With Weight Loss

Exercise, in general, can help you lose weight because it gets your body moving, helping you expend more calories, build muscle and burn fat. But low-impact exercises can be just as beneficial as high-impact ones, like burpees and box jumps, for weight loss.

"A low-impact workout can help with weight loss by contributing to total calories burned," Richards says. "We burn fewer calories per minute with low-intensity exercise, but the tradeoff is we can sustain the exercise for longer."

That can be particularly beneficial if you have a lot of weight to lose or you're dealing with joint pain, according to the Obesity Medicine Association and the American Council on Exercise.

In fact, in one small September 2014 study published in the ​Journal of Exercise, Nutrition & Biochemistry,​ women living with obesity significantly reduced their abdominal fat and improved their insulin resistance after 12 weeks of walking 50 to 70 minutes three days per week.

Low-impact exercise allows you to "exercise pain-free or with less pain, and have less risk of furthering joint injury and inflammation," Robinson says. And the more comfortable you feel, the more likely you'll be able to keep up a regular workout regimen.

The key is paying attention to the length and intensity of your workout. To burn the same amount of calories through low-impact exercise, you'll have to find ways to push yourself without increasing the impact, Robinson explains.

For example, you could walk at a brisk pace instead of taking a leisurely stroll, or add high-intensity intervals to your swimming workout.

Low-Impact Exercise for Weight Loss Is More Effective With a Healthy Diet

No matter what kind of workouts you do, a combination of exercise and dietary changes is far more effective for driving down the number on the scale compared to just exercise alone, according to the Mayo Clinic.

For that reason, it can be helpful to think of physical activity as a way to make your food changes even more effective.

For example, in an October 2017 study in The​ ​Journal of Nutrition, adding moderate walking to their calorie-restrictive diet significantly improved adults' weight-loss results.

But there's no one type of eating plan that's best for weight loss. It's about getting into the habit of choosing wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains— and taking in fewer calories.

To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in, and by sticking to nutrient-dense foods instead of processed ones, which tend to pack on calories and fat, you can maintain a calorie deficit.

Using an app to track your food intake can help you get started. "When you track what you eat and quickly see the calories really add up, you're more likely to recognize where you can make changes," Robinson says.

Download the MyPlate app to track your calories consumed and burned for a complete picture of your overall health.

The Best Low-Impact Exercises for Weight Loss

When looking for a low-impact exercise that can help you reach your weight-loss goals, opt for activities that allow you to ramp up the intensity and help build lean, metabolically active. That'll help you burn more calories — and more body fat — faster.

Here are some of the best low-impact exercises for weight loss to try.

1. Walking

Strolling at a brisk pace burns plenty of calories — between 200 and 300 per hour — while improving your overall fitness and heart health, Robinson says. Aim to keep up at least a moderate pace where you can talk comfortably but not sing.

Once you become fitter, you can gradually increase your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) to make the workout more challenging. For example, try power walking so that you can say only a few words at a time.

Picking up your pace not only translates to more calories burned during your workout but also afterward, especially if you're using high-intensity intervals.

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2. Swimming and Water Aerobics

Aerobic sports are a total-body workout that boosts your cardio fitness and strengthens your muscles but puts zero pressure on your joints.

"It's the ultimate low-impact workout because the buoyancy of the water holds you up," Richards says.

A 160-pound person can burn up to 423 calories per hour swimming laps at a light or moderate pace, or about 402 calories in a water aerobics class, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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3. Bicycling and the Elliptical Machine

Both types of low-impact exercise allow you to easily increase the intensity — and the calorie burn —simply by simply ramping up the speed or resistance.

"Plus, they help build stronger leg muscles, providing more support for your joints, which lessens joint pain in the long term," Robinson says.

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4. Strength Training

Resistance exercises with dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands and strength machines tend to be low-impact by nature, as long as you steer clear of moves that involve jumping or catching heavy objects.

"Isometric exercises, like planks, engage muscles without too much movement. I often recommend them for clients looking to gain or maintain muscle strength while reducing joint stress," Robinson says.

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