10 Types of Low-Impact Exercise That Keep You Fit and Injury-Free

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You got the message: You need to exercise. Maybe you’ve made it part of your daily routine, even a big part of your life. Then something happens. Your knees start hurting, so your doctor tells you to cut down on the daily runs. Maybe you’ve developed a touch of arthritis. The problem now becomes finding a way to stay fit and keeping up your cardio workouts without the impact on your body. Here are some suggestions of gentler ways to stay in shape -- with a caveat: You get from low-impact sports what you put into them.

1. Swimming

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As an all-over low-impact workout, swimming is hard to beat. Immersion in water creates two advantages for your body: Buoyancy reduces stress on joints and ligaments, and the water creates resistance. Water also cools your body as you move, eliminating the risk of overheating and keeping you more comfortable. Harvard Medical School’s Family Health Guide highly recommends swimming because it “trains the body to use oxygen more efficiently” and “improves muscle strength and flexibility.” The guide cites a study of longevity in men ages 20 to 90 comparing swimmers with runners, walkers and those who didn’t exercise. The study showed that the swimmers lived longer than the runners, walkers and non-exercisers who participated. Swimming is good for your mental health too. Many swimmers report that it induces a meditative state that reduces their stress. Best of all, it’s a lifetime activity. There’s no need to stop as you get older.

Related: 7 Reasons to Do Moderate-Intensity Exercise More Often

2. Horseback Riding

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You might think the horse does all the work. Serious equestrians hate hearing that. Sure, you can slouch along a trail in a Western saddle at a comfortable amble and let the horse do the work, but try balancing in a jumping saddle for just five minutes at a brisk trot and you’ll soon be disabused of that misconception. It all depends on how you ride. You’ll quickly learn horses are large animals and that you can’t keep up with their movements without some genuine physical effort. Riding well means developing strong core and leg muscles, along with general fitness, but it doesn’t involve the percussive impact of many other sports. Of course, all this assumes that you stay in the saddle -- hitting the ground is something altogether different. So be sure you start with a well-trained animal and a competent instructor, and always wear a helmet. Yes, cowboy hats look cool. No, they will not protect your brain.

3. Cycling

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Whether you’re riding a $7,000 road bike or tooling around the neighborhood on an old Schwinn, cycling will give you as gentle or as hardcore a workout as you need -- without unduly stressing your body. Riding a bike has huge advantages: You can cover more ground and see more sights than running would allow, and it won’t damage your cartilage and ligaments. Riding a bike can also have a great social component. Cycling clubs in many cities and towns organize group rides. And if you’re competitive by nature, there are races ranging from short distances to hundred-mile marathons, most of which are associated with charities, so you’re doing good deeds while staying fit. Safety is paramount: Always observe traffic rules and wear a helmet and bright colors to make yourself visible to motorists.

Related: 11 Best Stretches to Do Before Biking

4. Rowing, Kayaking and Canoeing

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Rowing is one of the oldest Olympic sports and one of the few low-impact exercises that work all the big muscle groups. It’s great for strengthening your abs and lower back. According to Frederick C. Hagerman, director of the Work Physiology Lab at Ohio University, rowing burns more calories than cycling or running for the same amount of physical effort. You can get the benefits with the rowing machines at the gym, but the real fun comes from getting on the water. You can buy a lightweight open-water shell and explore lakes and salt marshes while getting a great full-body workout. Kayaking and canoeing will also give you a great upper-body workout and provide you with endless adventures. It’s a great alternative for folks who have injured their knees. You can start out on a local lake or flat-water river and eventually, if you’re feeling brave, learn to navigate the rapids. Or try some interval training -- pushing hard for a minute, backing off momentarily, then pushing again. Some trainers recommend canoeing or kayaking as cross-training for runners, who tend to develop strong legs but neglect their upper bodies and arms.

Related: The Best Piece of Gym Equipment You're Not Using

5. Tai Chi

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We know. Tai chi -- at least traditional tai chi -- is slow. This centuries-old art has many benefits, but aerobic activity isn’t high on the list. Recently, however, a new form has appeared. Dr. Chi-hsiu D. Weng invented cardio tai chi to provide a workout that would still be kind to joints and ligaments. The 30-minute routine involves a series of movements structured around a traditional Chinese story. This new version of the ancient discipline is just getting off the ground. However, even in its original, meditative form, tai chi has been shown to have some aerobic benefits, while also increasing both upper- and lower-body strength.

Related: Tai Chi and 5 Other Ancient Techniques That Can Benefit Your Health

6. Rollerblading

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In-line skating causes less than 50 percent of the impact shock to joints compared to running, according to a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts. And according to Dr. Carl Foster, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, in-line skating as a form of exercise is as beneficial as running or cycling. Rollerblading will build leg and core strength and balance, and it’s a great way to tone your butt muscles. In addition, like cycling, it’s an efficient means of transport -- just be safe! Always wear proper protective equipment and be aware of traffic hazards. Once again, this is a sport that gets you out into the world rather than confining you to the gym. To get the most bang for your cardio buck, do intervals: Pick up your speed for two minutes, back off for three, repeat. You can also add hills for an extra challenge.

7. Hiking

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We’re not talking about meandering around a level trail in your local city park. To get the real aerobic benefits of hiking, you need to add changes in altitude (i.e., hills) and enough distance to get you genuinely tired. Adding a day pack on your back ups the challenge a bit, and once you get really serious about it, you can think about long overnight hikes carrying a pack of up to 40 pounds. If you want to go this route, it’s important to invest in a good pair of hiking boots (not regular sneakers, which won’t support your ankles or give you a good grip on funky surfaces) and to practice common sense. Break in your boots ahead of time by wearing them around the neighborhood or you’ll end up with blisters that will totally ruin your fun on the trail. Bring along some high-protein energy bars and a full water bottle to stay hydrated. Don’t bite off more than you can chew in the beginning. Even if you’re pretty fit, you’re probably not ready for a huge uphill effort, so build up gradually. Although the solitude you’ll experience from hiking alone can be lovely, it’s a good idea to start with a group. More experienced hikers know how to navigate in the woods and pace themselves. There are hiking clubs in most areas, and you’re more likely to stick with it if you have company.

Related: 16 Beautiful National Parks You MUST See

8. Water Aerobics

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“Wait,” I hear you say. “Isn’t that an old-lady activity?” Not necessarily. It’s true that the buoyancy of water can make for a nice, relaxing quasi-workout, which is one reason why this form of exercise is popular with older folks and those recovering from injuries. But water’s greater density also means that you get more resistance to any action. Simply put, it’s harder to move through water than through air. You can do all kinds of interval training in water, and some gyms offer water boot camp classes that are totally hardcore. As one participant commented after such a class, “This isn’t your grandma’s water aerobics!” Even racehorses now exercise in water for all the same reasons; it’s a superefficient way to get fit without the injury risk of high-impact exercise.

9. Dance

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Most forms of dance, from ballroom to belly dance, will give you a great aerobic workout. There are so many variations that you’re sure to find one that suits you: Bollywood, tango, merengue, tap. In fact, the British National Health Service recommends dance “for losing weight, maintaining strong bones, improving posture and muscle strength, increasing balance and coordination and beating stress.” We don’t recommend ballet or hip-hop, and watch out for moves that demand twisting on the balls of your feet -- those can wrench your knee joints. Of course, there’s that old standby Zumba, which will give you a thorough workout -- but, again, beware the percussive moves like sideways jumps and twists. The great thing about dancing is the pleasure it gives while you’re sweating your way to fitness. And there’s a bonus: You’re developing a social skill while you work out. It’s a double win!

Related: Dancing and 11 Other Workouts that Improve Your Mood

10. Cross-Country or Nordic Skiing

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Do you ever watch the Winter Olympics? There’s a reason why those cross-country skiers collapse at the end of their run. If you push it, it’s an exhausting workout. At competitive levels, this sport burns huge amounts of calories. But even if you take it relatively easy, it’s a great all-over workout, involving every major muscle group. Because it doesn’t overstress any one muscle group, you can ski for hours without hurting yourself. The bonus, of course, is getting out into the winter countryside. And once you’ve invested in the basic equipment it’s free, unlike downhill skiing, which requires day passes and lift tickets. It’s great for kids too, and you can even take your dog along.

What Do YOU Think?

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Do you need to do low-impact exercise? Is it due to an injury? Have you discovered other sports that keep you fit without stressing your joints and ligaments? Are there any low-impact exercises you enjoy that we missed on our list? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Swimming

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You got the message: You need to exercise. Maybe you’ve made it part of your daily routine, even a big part of your life. Then something happens. Your knees start hurting, so your doctor tells you to cut down on the daily runs. Maybe you’ve developed a touch of arthritis. The problem now becomes finding a way to stay fit and keeping up your cardio workouts without the impact on your body. Here are some suggestions of gentler ways to stay in shape -- with a caveat: You get from low-impact sports what you put into them.


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