When getting into a new workout routine, it might feel a bit overwhelming: yoga, pilates, walking, jogging, HIIT, Tabata… so many options to choose from! However, if you’re getting into sports and don’t have a set routine, it’s best to start with low impact exercises. But what does that mean, and how do you know if your current routine is high- or low-impact? Here’s everything you need to know!
Exercise impact levels: what you need to know
In general, moving your body is always a good thing. But it’s important to choose activities that fit your current fitness level. This will allow your body to slowly ease into your new routine, avoid injury and keep you healthy.
In general, we can distinguish three big categories when it comes to exercise impact levels: high, low and no-impact exercise. Here’s what that means:
High-impact exercise: These workouts involve movements were both feet are off the ground at the same time (like jumping).
Low-impact exercise: During this type of exercise, at least one of your feet will stay on the ground while you move. Walking falls into this category.
No-impact: Your feet will stay in the ground throughout the whole session. This category includes things such as swimming, or doing the elliptical.
As you can see, the impact level can be measured by how much pressure will be on your joints. Swimming will put almost zero pressure on them, while running or doing plyometrics will put severe strain on them. If you don’t really know which one is for you, we’ve got you covered.
High-impact exercise: pros and cons
Having doubts about which workout is the right one for your body? Here’s what you should know about high-impact exercise:
Burn more calories: High-impact workouts can burn more calories per session.
Healthier heart: These workouts involve aerobic exercises that will increase your heart rate and lead to a healthier blood pressure and heart.
Strengthens your bones: The stress on your bones will prompt your body to add mass and improve your bone density, and you’ll lower your osteoporosis risk on the long term.
Fewer sessions per week: Since you’re straining your entire body, it needs some time to recoup and heal. That’s why you shouldn’t perform high-impact exercises on a daily basis (great for busy schedules!)
Athletic injuries: You’re at a higher risk of injury if you perform exercises without proper form.
Needs proper equipment: Because you’re straining your body, having the right equipment (like proper shoes, resistance bands or a cushioned mat) is essential to keep your form.
Can be painful: This is especially true if you have arthritis or other joint problems, because these exercises can have an impact of about 2.5 times your body weight on your tendons and muscles.
High-impact exercises include running or Tabata sets, but also jumping jacks, burpees, jumping squats and many other plyometric exercises.
Low-impact exercise: pros and cons
If high-impact workouts sound too advanced for your current fitness level, or you just want something milder, low-impact exercise could be your jam. To keep things simple, we’ve combined “low-impact” and “no-impact” workouts, because these can be very similar. Here’s what experts say about it:
Easy on your joints: These routines won’t strain your joints or put excess weight on them. This is great for people with arthritis or joint issues.
Can be done daily: In contrast with high-impact exercise, you can easily incorporate low-impact workouts to your daily routine since it won’t strain your body as much.
Improved mobility & flexibility: Moving at a slower pace will build your strength and flexibility, as well as improve your posture.
Improved mood: Even lower impact workouts help your body release endorphins, helping you cope with pain and boosting your mood.
Aerobic training is more difficult to achieve: Getting your heart rate up in order to improve your cardiovascular health is significantly more difficult when doing low-impact workouts.
Slower improvement in body composition: Weight loss and muscle building can be slower in comparison with higher impact workouts, but this also usually means changes happen in a healthier, more sustainable manner.
Is low-impact exercise the same as low-intensity exercises?
As we already mentioned, “impact level” refers to the stress put on your joints. In contrast, “intensity level” refers to how difficult a given exercise feels while you’re doing it. That means that you can have low-impact, high-intensity workouts, as well as low-impact, low-intensity ones.
For example, for someone sedentary, a brisk 10-minute walk around the block might get their heart pumping and their breath shallow. That means, for them, it was a high-intensity exercise, while still remaining low-impact. In contrast, for someone that already exercises at a high-intensity on a daily basis, that 1-hour yoga class might be very low-intensity. It all depends on your particular needs and fitness level!
5 tips to increase the intensity in low-impact workouts
For many people, low-impact workouts are the only option. If you have arthritis, other joint issues or osteoporosis, high-impact workouts that involve jumping or pounding the floor can cause more harm than good.
If that’s your case, and you want to increase the intensity of your workouts, here are some easy ways to boost a low-impact session:
Add extra minutes: Increase your workout time by 10 to 15 minutes. Even if you stay at the same pace, adding that extra distance to your daily walk can get you sweaty and panting in no time.
Keep your form: The more you do a certain exercise, the likelier you are to forget about proper form. Soon enough, it can feel too “easy”. Counteract that by paying special attention to your form and doing every movement slowly. You’ll be shocked to see how difficult your regular routine will become!
Use accessories: Walking poles for outside walking, or even incorporating a resistance band to your workout will up the intensity without the jumping.
Incorporate intervals: Instead of keeping the same intensity throughout the entire workout, try working out in slightly more intense bursts, followed by a slower pace. If you’re walking, try going faster for 30 seconds, then take a minute to go back to your regular pace. Repeat as needed.
Use your core: Whether you’re doing Pilates, walking or on the elliptical, engage your core. You’ll see how every movement is a bit more difficult, and you’ll feel the burn all over!
Low vs high impact workouts: which one is the best for you?
Choosing between high and low impact workouts depends on your tastes, current fitness levels, needs and time.
For many people with joint issues or arthritis, low-impact is the way to go. In contrast, if you have a good fitness level and don’t have much time, high-impact workouts are an easy way to burn calories without spending hours working out.
Experts recommend everyone, regardless of their age, start exercising with low-impact workouts. This will ease your body into being more active, while keeping you safe from unwanted injury. Once your fitness level gets better, you can incorporate more intense workouts.
Easy low-impact exercise ideas
Working out should be fun, and low-impact workouts can be challenging and entertaining, without the jumping! Here are some expert-approved low-impact workout ideas that anyone can do:
Walking: This classic is gentle enough on your joints that almost anyone can do it, while still being demanding enough to get a good workout out of it. Fitness walking can help you manage your blood pressure, lower your diabetes risk, help with your stress and overall boost your health . The key? Start slowly. If you’ve never been active, start with a 1-mile walk and increase it from there. Soon enough you’ll be doing 4 miles a day!
Light yoga: We’re not talking about taking a hot yoga class your first day. Instead, some light yoga targeted at beginners will improve your general wellbeing and flexibility, as well as your balance. Plus, the gentle breathing exercises will lower your cortisol levels.
Pilates: This is a great option for those with sensitive knees. Since many Pilates moves are done on your back, you won’t need to put pressure on your joints while still getting a good workout. Pilates balances your body, lengthens your muscles and strengthens your core .
Bowling: Surprised? Although this one isn’t aerobic exercise, it will get you moving and is a great way to socialize with people in your community. Bowling will keep your posture healthy, as well as help with flexibility and upper-body coordination.
Swimming: If you have a swimming pool near, this is one of the best low-impact exercise options. Anyone can benefit from swimming, especially if you can’t put a lot of pressure in your joints. Swimming is also a great option to keep your heart healthy, without strenuous jumping or overly stressing your body.
Are you ready to find your next favorite workout? Let us know how it goes in the comments below!
Waehner, Paige. High-impact workouts pros and cons. VeryWell Fit. Available here.
National Health Service (UK). “Easy exercises”. Available here.
Sheneman, Timothy. “5 tips for walking your way to better health”. Mayo Clinic. Available here.