Physical 

Low-Impact Exercises With Serious Benefits

May 25, 2021 4 min read

Man doing push-ups as a low-impact exercise

Dr. Amanda Anderson, PT, DPT, MS - Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist

If you're putting in overtime to reach your fitness goals but your body is struggling to keep up, it may be worth reevaluating the type of exercise you're doing. People are often hindered by joint pain when overexerting themselves or attempting to do too much too fast. If you're experiencing pain during exercise, chances are you won't be motivated to stick with it. 

The good news is there are many different ways to exercise—some more comfortable than others—even for those recovering from an injury or dealing with arthritic pain. Focusing your efforts on low-impact exercise, which tends to be more fluid and stable, can help keep your pain under control so you can gain all the benefits of exercise while preventing more pain.

Why and how much should I exercise?

Research shows that regular physical activity helps manage blood pressure, mood balance, and weight. The American College of Sports Medicine and the Center for Disease Control recommend that all healthy adults between 18 and 65 participate in one of the following:

  • Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes five days per week
  • Vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise for at least 20 minutes three days per week

So, what does this mean? Aerobic exercise refers to an activity that gets your heart rate up higher than its resting rate. Moderate-intensity exercise includes brisk walking, heavy cleaning (think vacuuming or mopping), mowing the lawn, bicycling, yoga, water aerobics, or swimming. 

Vigorous-intensity exercise includes hiking, jogging, water jogging, swimming laps, shoveling, or intense bicycling.

What Is Low-Impact Exercise?

Impact refers to the amount of stress an exercise puts on your joints. High-impact activities include competitive sports like football and soccer, along with activities involving repetitive movements or rough landings, like running and gymnastics. 

Low-impact exercise tends to be more fluid, but that doesn't always mean it's easier. Low-impact exercise can be a great way to increase your heart rate while also protecting a recent injury or modifying your routine due to health conditions. 

Low-impact exercises can also help you take a day off from higher-impact activities while still reaping the cardiovascular benefits. Additionally, low-impact activities tend to involve more balance and mobility components, which help anyone from high-level athletes to elderly exercisers.

Low-impact activities to include in your routine

There are many activities you can try to stay active while reducing the stress you're placing upon your joints. Here are a few to get you started. 

1. Yoga

Yoga is an ancient Indian mind-body practice that incorporates bodyweight exercise, balance, and synchronizing movements with your breath. Research has demonstrated many beneficial effects of yoga, including relief from a range of conditions like stress, lower back pain, and more. 

The stresses of modern life undoubtedly contribute to the onset of CVD. Several studies have indicated that yoga may improve CVD risk factors, including body weight, lipid profiles, blood pressure, stress, and Type II diabetes.

Yoga is also widely modifiable and can be tailored to meet the needs of both beginners and expert practitioners. If something feels too easy, you can add weights or increase the pace to increase your heart rate while still maintaining a low-impact workout.

2. Pilates

While somewhat similar to yoga, Pilates incorporates approximately 50 exercises to achieve low-impact muscular exertion. The goal is to improve muscle strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. 

Every exercise begins with a core contraction, including the abdominals, glutes, and muscles around the spine, before proceeding with a controlled motion through a particular range. Exercises are performed on a mat or Reformer, a sliding horizontal platform within a rectangle-like frame where participants sit, stand, kneel, or recline to perform a movement using various resistances from light springs attached to the moving platform.

Most research on Pilates has focused on its ability to reduce the presence of non-specific lower back pain in adults.

Man warming up for low-impact exercises outdoors

3. Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese form of exercise stemming from the practice of martial arts. It's a moderate-intensity exercise shown to improve cardiovascular and respiratory function, immune function, mental fortitude, flexibility, and balance. It also improves muscle strength and reduces the risk of falls in the elderly.

As adults age, there is a decline in overall organ function, which results in joint degeneration and decreased eyesight, balance, and stamina. The low-impact, low-velocity movements of Tai Chi seem to provide aging adults with all the exercise components they require to remain independent and promote a healthy lifestyle.

4. Swimming

Swimming a few laps or taking a water aerobics class can be a great way to maintain your fitness while also participating in a low-impact form of exercise. Swimming can reduce the forces on your joints up to 90%, making it a helpful way to recover from injury. 

Swimming also burns calories twice as fast as walking, making it a valuable tool for weight management. Combined with the fact that the displacement of water when you're in the pool will unweight you, it can be an excellent way to get in that cardio without the pounding of walking or jogging on your joints.

5. Cycling

Cycling is another low-impact activity to improve your cardiovascular fitness, with an added bonus: It's easy to forget that you're actually exercising when you're biking to work or on a leisurely ride with friends. 

Cycling is also a highly versatile exercise you can do in the gym or at a scheduled fitness class on a stationary bike. Classes can help those who need the accountability, but cycling can also be a form of activity you can do spontaneously, especially if you have your own bike at home.

Key takeaways

Exercise is something we all need regardless of our different backgrounds. Finding activities that are motivating to you is the key to making exercise a lifelong habit. 

Whether you're trying to lose weight, decrease stress, or manage a chronic health condition, there are myriad options that can be tailored to your needs and goals. Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, swimming, and cycling are excellent low-impact activities to get you started. They're especially helpful if you're recovering from an injury, dealing with the effects of aging, or just need a change of pace from your regular exercise routine. 

Whatever the reason, make sure you find activities that work for you to get the cardiovascular improvements you need for you to feel your best.