Why Low-Impact Exercises Should Be an Essential Part of Your Workout

As a dude (and a human in general), you may crave the physical exertion of high-impact activities like running or CrossFit. Apart from being a great outlet or escape, intense workouts are the most efficient way to keep those delicious beers from ruining your gentleman’s physique.

However, as you age into your 30s, 40s, and 50s, high-intensity workouts wear harder on your body and could make you question whether to quit entirely. (“My knees!”) And it’s true — your body is becoming less efficient.

According to a paper published by Harvard Medical School, “some of the changes of aging start as early as the third decade of life. After age 25–30, the average man’s maximum attainable heart rate declines … and his heart’s peak capacity to pump blood drifts down by 5-10 percent per decade.”

“Most Americans begin to gain weight in midlife, putting on three to four pounds a year. But since men start to lose muscle in their 40s, that extra weight is all fat.” Then muscle loss continues, “eventually reducing a man’s musculature by up to 50 percent, which contributes to weakness and disability,” reads the report.

exercise stretch yoga mat
Low-impact training like yoga and pilates should be mixed into your regular routine. 10,000 Hours/Getty Images

The impact of running and other high-intensity workouts are often blamed for your aging knee pain. However, The Manual spoke to two experts that assert this direct running-to-joint-pain correlation is a myth. Both suggest a proven way to avoid both injury and inactivity.

Odds are, it’s not running or daily workouts causing injury, but the lack of low-impact cross-training.

“Despite common presumptions, there is no scientific evidence that high-impact activities such as running increase the risk of knee pain/injury/arthritis. You have to keep in mind the knee is designed to be a weight-bearing joint so it is perfectly capable of managing the forces associated with walking and running,” says Paul R. Langer, DPM,  board-certified podiatrist, clinical advisor for the American Running Association, an associate of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons.

Odds are, it’s not running or daily workouts causing injury, but the lack of low-impact cross-training, which consists of activities like walking, hiking, swimming, yoga, and pilates. The best machines for such workouts are ellipticals, spinning and stationary bikes, rowing machines, and stair climbers.

swimming swimmer pool
Swimming is low-impact cardio exercise.

“I recommend a 4:1 ratio of low-impact to higher intensity workouts for most athletes,” says Rick Muhr, commercial Zero Runner endurance coach for Octane Fitness.

Muhr is a 32-time marathon finisher, ultra-marathoner, and renowned Boston Marathon running coach who swears by low-impact exercise as a fitness-extending secret (and he’s not exactly a spring chicken). Muhr started incorporating low-impact training during his 20s to recover from higher intensity running workouts. This ultimately led to dramatically improved performances at races and an injury-free record.

Over time, “your body does become more prone to injury, overuse, and other physical ailments,” Langer continues. “But because men today can expect to live well past age 100, managing loading as we age should help us to stay active well into our later years.”

exercise workout gym rowing machine
You can still get a high-intensity workout on a rowing machine. Srdjan Pav/Getty Images

There are several workout machines designed to deliver low-impact workouts, such as the Octane Zero Runner, ElliptiGO bikes, water treadmills, and anti-gravity treadmills. ElliptiGo, for instance, is the cross-training tool Olympic runner Meb Keflezighi credits to keeping him on the international podium well into his 40s.

“But I’m not injured,” you might be saying. “I’m still young!”

Langer concedes that today’s modern man won’t begin incorporating low-impact variables into his workout regime until challenged with an injury. “Most young athletes feel immortal and have the mindset that if I am not hurt, then I am doing the right thing,” he says.

This is why being open to preventative training is of the utmost importance for any man hoping to stay active, fit, and injury-free through his silver fox years.

The first step to making low-impact training a habit is to discard any prejudices that these workouts are less effective than higher-impact workouts. “A well-timed and much needed low-intensity workout is as important, if not more, to overall improvement in performance,” says Muhr.

“No man can stop the clock, but every man can slow its tick.”

Don’t feel pressured by “Steve the pace-pushing marathoner” who has one of those 26.2 stickers on his car when you know your body needs a long vinyasa yoga class or an elliptical session. It’s not soft— it’s smart. In the end, you’ll still be the one eating miles while Steve is bedridden with arthritis.

The Harvard paper goes on to explain that aging physiological changes — slower reflexes, muscle loss, fat gain, and heart capacity — happens even to healthy men and is more extreme for those with medical problems. “No man can stop the clock, but every man can slow its tick,” it reads.

Muhr, Langer, and a dozen fitness companies investing more research and development into low-impact machines suggest this type of cross-training is the most effective tool for slowing that tick.

Article originally published September 26, 2017. Last updated January 2019.

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