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

man exercising on a cross trainer in gym.

One of the best things about exercise is that there are so many different sports and activities, allowing nearly everyone to find at least one way to be physically active. From basketball to running, yoga to weight lifting, racquetball to boxing, the menu of options is varied enough that you can almost always find some way to train regardless of your fitness level, interest, and access to equipment. But what about those with physical limitations? If you’re suffering from a musculoskeletal injury or have a physical disability, running, jumping, or contact sports may not be safe or possible. Unfortunately, many of the popular, go-to exercises are high-impact activities, which place significant forces on the bones and joints, and although you might not be able to participate in your favorite sport or exercise modality while you rehab an injury, there as still plenty of low-impact exercises to choose from.

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What Are Low-Impact Exercises?

Low-impact exercises are any sort of exercise wherein at least one foot remains in contact with the ground or is supporting your body weight. This is in contrast to activities like running or jumping because they have a period of flight when both feet are off the ground, followed by a high-impact landing. Low-impact exercise is not necessarily low-intensity exercise, however. Low-intensity exercise is physical activity performed at a deliberately easy to moderate level, typically keeping your heart rate below 70% of your maximum heart rate. While low-impact exercise can be completed at a low intensity—and it often is more difficult to get your heart rate as high as it may reach with high-impact exercise — you can still perform low-impact exercises at a high intensity and get a good cardio workout.

What Are the Benefits of Low-impact Exercises?

Low-impact exercises offer plenty of benefits. They are a great way to stay active while reducing the stress on your bones, joints, and cartilage. As such, low-impact exercise is great for those with injuries, bigger guys, and those new to exercise. Low-impact exercise is also an ideal active recovery or cross-training activity for guys who participate in high-impact sports like running, basketball, soccer, or tennis.

What Are the Best Low-Impact Exercises for Getting and Staying Fit?

There are quite a few low-impact exercises you can choose from, and picking the “best one” depends on your fitness goal—improving cardiovascular fitness, building muscular strength, increasing flexibility, burning calories, etc. Here are some of our favorite low-impact exercises for men:

Power Walking or Hiking

Walking is probably the simplest form of low-impact exercise, but you can turn it into a more challenging workout with a few modifications. Incline walking (either on a treadmill or up hills keeps the impact down while boosting the metabolic demand. Power walking as fast as you can or wearing a weighted vest or using hand weights will also make the workout more intense.

Cycling or Spinning

Whether you choose to ride your bike outside, or prefer a spin bike or recumbent bike, cycling is a low-impact cardio exercise that strengthens your lower body, builds cardiovascular fitness, and burns calories. It’s a good cross-training activity for runners due to the reduced stress on your joints and bones and the use of different muscles. Try to keep your cadence above 90 and the resistance high to boost your calorie burn.

Rowing

exercise workout gym rowing machine
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Rowing is often an underutilized form of low-impact exercise. However, what it lacks in popularity, it makes up for in benefits. Rowing provides a simultaneous cardio and muscle strengthening workout, making it a good calorie-burning activity as well. You’ll work your legs, upper body, and core while minimizing the impact on your joints.

Read more: Best Rowing Machines

Swimming

swimming swimmer pool

Swimming laps is a great form of cardio exercise, and since you’re in the water, it takes low-impact exercise to the even more conservative no-impact level. This makes swimming an excellent option if you have a skeletal injury. Consider mixing up the strokes you use and throw in some fast laps to really get your heart pounding and lungs huffing and puffing.

Read more: Best Swimming Workouts

Aqua Jogging

If you’re a runner, one of the best running-specific workouts is pool running or aqua jogging. If you are nursing an injury or looking for a non-impact form of cross-training for active recovery from running workouts, aqua jogging is a perfect option. You’ll work against the resistance of the water, mimicking the running motion in the deep end of the water. Some guys choose to wear a floatation belt, which is a smart decision for beginners. The belt will help give you enough buoyancy that you can focus on maintaining proper form and pushing the pace you’re moving rather than on keeping your head above the water. Because water running is non-weight-bearing, your heart rate won’t get quite as high as it does while land running, but aim to get within 10-15 beats of your target land heart rate zones. To ramp up the intensity of the workout, throw in high-intensity intervals where you “sprint” for 30 seconds to 3 minutes, or replicate tempo run by working at a threshold pace for 20-40 minutes.

Elliptical Trainers

The elliptical trainer is a cardio favorite for many guys and a staple at most gyms. There are a variety of styles of the machine, but most involve moving your arms and legs in a flat or inclined elliptical stride pattern. The user can increase the incline, resistance, and cadence to make the workout more vigorous. Because your feet remain in contact with the foot pedals at all times, elliptical trainers are low impact though they are still weight-bearing. Rather than just hopping on and zoning out at a steady pace for the duration of your workout, try high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to accelerate your calorie burn. After a 5-10 minute warmup, throw in hard surges of 30-90 seconds followed by 30-50 seconds of slower recovery. Complete 10-15 surges and then cool down with 5 minutes of easy striding. If you’re an outdoorsy guy who would prefer almost anything to than being confined by the walls of a gym, there are also mobile elliptical-like outdoor bikes, such as the ElliptiGo, which enable to take your workout to the roads and breathe in fresh air. While not cheap, if elliptical trainers are your preferred exercise machine but you’d rather be outside, investing in an ElliptiGo may be a smart investment.

Yoga and Pilates

exercise stretch yoga mat
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Most forms of yoga and Pilates aren’t particularly cardiovascularly-demanding, but they still offer plenty of benefits, such as improving flexibility and balance, building core strength, improving posture, strengthening the mind-body connection, and relieving stress. Becoming a well-rounded athlete involves training all aspects of fitness, and if you’re looking to use low-impact exercises as a way to stay active on “rest days” from more intense training, yoga or Pilates can be a great option. If you’re new to these activities, consider trying a yoga class for beginners or try a yoga or Pilates workout video on YouTube or another fitness streaming service.

Weight Lifting

Most people tend to focus on cardio when they consider low-impact exercises, but plenty of weight lifting exercises are low impact, so you can still strengthen your muscles if you’re nursing an injury. If you’re able to stand and load your body with weights without exacerbating an injury, you’ll be able to take on almost any traditional strength training. However, if you are non-weight-bearing, modify exercises so that you are seated or lying down or consider resistance machines. Certain exercises, such as squats, will not be possible, but you may be able to work the muscles in other ways (like a leg press machine), depending on your physical restrictions. If you’re looking for more of a cardio workout, consider circuit training with minimal rest between weight training exercises.

Stair Climbing

Whether you hop on a stair stepper machine at the gym or hit up your local stadium or apartment building, climbing stairs is one of the most metabolically-demanding low-impact exercises out there. By working against gravity, you’ll get a full-body workout that gets your heart pounding and works most of the major muscles in your body. Because of this, climbing stairs torches a significant number of calories, so it’s an efficient mode of exercise. As with regular running or walking, the faster you ascend the stairs, the more intense the workout will be. To keep the exercise low-impact, you’ll need to walk up the stairs rather than run. Additionally, as stair climbing is still a weight-bearing activity, it may not be suitable for all injuries.

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