If you find some of the most common forms of exercising hard, or intimidating, due to their high-impact nature, these low-impact cardio workout ideas are for you. Some of the most common forms of traditional exercise, such as boot-camp style classes involving jumps and burpees, or running on roads or a treadmill, can be hard on the joints. They also make things difficult for seniors, beginners, or those just coming back to fitness after an injury.
Fortunately, there’s lots of ways to work out that don’t risk joint and muscle pain, are more forgiving to beginners, and focus more on getting technique right than applying loads of force. These gentler, low-impact workouts range from a brisk walk, ideal for seniors or overweight first-timers, to a demanding weights session which helps you build muscle around weak joints and bones. Low-impact exercise covers all levels of fitness across many different disciplines. You don’t have to worry about your unreliable knee any more (although, if you do, we have a guide for how to exercise without hurting your knees).
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Why choose to do a low-impact exercise?
There are many different reasons why someone might opt for one of these low-impact cardio workout ideas rather than a high-impact alternative. High-impact exercises tend to require you to use more energy, especially plyometric jumping moves such as burpees. Therefore, they tend to be more efficient at burning calories. However, if you’re coming to fitness for the first time, and you don’t have your technique down pat, adding more force may do more harm than good.
Lewis Akpata is a personal trainer and instructor for low-impact workout classes at FLY LDN – so he knows a thing or two about removing jumps and other impacts from a training program, which allows him to really focus on getting his clients to learn the basics of fundamental training moves.
"If you can’t do a low-impact air squat with proper technique – knees behind the toes, engaging the core – then you really shouldn’t be going into high-impact versions like jump squats, because you’re adding force being generated as you jump and land," says Lewis. "The risk of injury increases. So low-impact is a really good way of breaking down technique, getting that right first and building your confidence to take into the high-impact version."
As well as making sure you’re getting the technique right if you’re a beginner, you may be looking for low-impact movements to work around pre-existing injuries, such as shin splints or a bad knee. You may be carrying too much weight or be an older fitness participant – all good reasons to choose low-impact training.
- Related: How often should you work out?
Low-impact workouts: HIIT training modified
HIIT stands for “high-intensity interval training”, a style of workout which has you work at maximum effort for short periods of time, rest, and then go again. This kind of exercise usually involves intense moves like burpees, sprints, box jumps, mountain climbers and other exercises that require you to hit the ground hard, with a lot of force. You can adapt these exercises to a low-impact workout routine, but it takes a bit of tweaking.
Lewis says “In a burpee, you’re dropping your chest down to the floor, and then you’re coming up with a jump. You could take that into a low-impact move by just going into ‘up-downs’ for example, and to do that you just take the jump away. You can really focus on that technique instead of the high-impact part that really takes it out of you.”
In the video below, FLY LDN has posted an example of one of its low-impact circuit-training sessions to its YouTube channel, a great example of how you don’t have to be putting your joints at risk to work up a sweat in the studio or at home.
Low-impact workouts: Elliptical machines
Elliptical machines, often referred to as ‘cross trainers’ are amazing for low-impact exercise – they're one of the best exercise machines to lose weight. Often, when we think of losing weight or doing cardio exercise, the treadmill is our first thought. However, the repetitive motion of our feet hitting the treadmill belt (or the concrete outside) can be difficult for people with joint pain issues such as ‘runner’s knee’. Those who are currently overweight may want a more intense cardio exercise than walking, but worry about the effect a high-impact hobby may have on knees, hips and ankles.
The elliptical machine is the solution. With your feet strapped in to steps, and your hands placed on handles, ellipticals are some of the most popular machines in the gym for a reason: people on ellipticals burn just as many calories as those on a treadmill, according to a study by University of Nebraska researchers. In addition, you can crank up the resistance, creating a full-body muscle-building exercise. Extra muscle will not only make you stronger – it’ll also protect your joints in the future.
Low-impact workouts: Exercise bikes
Just like the elliptical machine, the exercise bike is another cardio machine that’s very effective for fat loss, and acts as a low-impact alternative to a treadmill. Exercise bikes, although keeping your glutes and torso stationary, don’t have the same full-body range of motion as a treadmill or elliptical machine. However, what it lacks in use of your glutes and core, it more than makes up for if you’ve ever been to a spin class.
A spin class is a sweat session in which groups of people on exercise bikes are encouraged to cycle at a pace set by a trainer, often to music. With an encouraging yet competitive atmosphere, a motivated trainer and fast-paced, pumping tunes, you can imagine being spurred on to go the extra mile, burning a buffet’s worth of calories in the process. What’s more, not only do you burn calories during the class, but your dedication to the bike will result in an increase in metabolism.
Combined research published in the Journal of Education and Training Studies found that after a 45-minute spin class, participants’ metabolic rates were raised for up to 14 hours, causing your body to chew through fat and metabolize any extra food quickly, before it can go to your waistline.
Not only is spinning a great low-impact solution, but crucially, it’s fun. "Training should be something you enjoy, something that’s exciting," says Lewis. "If you don’t like running, you won’t do it. There are so many different ways to train, which is why low-impact is such a good option. People think that to lose weight they need to run, or use a treadmill – which can be off-putting." Exercise bikes are good cardio training, so they're ideal for low-impact workouts.
Low-impact alternative: Resistance training
We’ve spoken a lot about cardiovascular exercise so far. But resistance training isn’t just for those who want big arms and a six-pack. As well as a way to develop muscle and protect your joints, compound movements like squats, push-ups and deadlifts offer a fat-burning cardiovascular benefit.
Moves that involve lifting weights, resistance bands and bodyweight exercises – even advanced compound moves such as deadlifts, squats and cleans – all work on just one or two planes of motion. A deadlift, for example, has you moving a weight up and down off the floor. It’s often seen as a potentially dangerous exercise if you lift too heavy with improper form, but if done with control and a manageable weight, the risk to your back is actually very low. The practice of lifting something and placing it down under control is a great way to develop muscle without harming your joints.
Compound movements will not only get you hench – they’re also a great way to lose fat. The American Council on Exercise found that compound movements offer a cardiovascular benefit and involve multiple muscle groups, increasing the demand on your body and burning more calories in the process. Another combined study found that people who did resistance training lost fat and developed lean muscle, changing their “body composition ratio”, which is your body’s proportion of fat-to-muscle-to-bone. The more protective muscle and less fat you carry, the healthier your joints will tend to be.
You don’t need a squat rack or heavy weights to start. You can perform simple exercises like the air squat and push-up to start getting the benefits of resistance training. If you can’t yet do pull-ups, you could try the doorway curl featured in this video below, which will help train your back and biceps without causing you to jump up to grab the bar, or throw around heavy weights.
- Read more: What is LISS cardio?
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Matt Evans is the current fitness editor over at our sister site, TechRadar. Armed with a Master’s Degree in journalism from Cardiff University, Matt started his digital journalism career at Men’s Health and stayed on for over two years, where he earned his stripes in health and fitness reporting. Since then, his byline has appeared in a wide variety of publications and sites including Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and LiveScience on everything from exercise, to nutrition, to mental health, alongside covering extreme sports for Red Bull.
Stretching is Matt’s top fitness tip. He originally discovered exercise through martial arts, holding a black belt in Karate, and trained for many years in kickboxing. During COVID he also fell in love with yoga, as it combined martial-arts style stretching with a bit of personal space.
When he’s not training or writing about health and fitness, he can be found reading doorstop-thick fantasy books with lots of fictional maps in them.