Low impact workouts are a great way to improve your fitness while avoiding injury. While we all know that exercise is good for us, many forms of it can cause injuries, such as running. Here are five low impact workouts you can use as alternatives to boost your fitness while hopefully avoiding injury.
There is a caveat – no sport or exercise is completely without risk, and some of the workouts suggested here, such as swimming and cycling, involve their own unique risks. Cycling, for example, involves repetitive and unnatural movement, as well as riding on potentially dangerous roads. The latter risk can be avoided by choosing an exercise bike, of which there is now a wide range. Have a look at our buying guide for the best exercise bikes to see what's available.
But overall, there are clear benefits to low impact workouts. The UK’s National Health Service states that low impact exercises “can improve your health and fitness without harming your joints”. Plus, research suggests that moderate intensity and low impact exercise, such as yoga and walking, is just as effective at lowering the risk of heart disease as high impact exercise, such as running.
Five low impact workouts: Walking
Walking may not seem like a workout, but research has suggested it is one of the best forms of low impact exercise and LISS cardio you can do – and for many people, it’s the most accessible. As the NHS puts it: “Walking is simple, free and one of the easiest ways to get more active, lose weight and become healthier.”
Studies have found numerous benefits associated with boosting the level of walking you do each day. Participants in a study carried out by experts at Brandeis University had more and better quality sleep when they walked more, while a meta-analysis by researchers at the University of Edinburgh uncovered a “growing” body of evidence suggesting walking has benefits for mental health.
There’s little instruction required for walking, as it’s easy to get started straight away and it doesn’t require any equipment or teammates. That being said, if you don’t fancy walking on your own, you could always join a walking group, which can have “wide-ranging health benefits”, according to experts at the University of East Anglia in the UK.
Five low impact workouts: Cycling
Cycling is a great low impact exercise because it is non-weight bearing. Cycling’s “non-weight-bearing nature makes it accessible to many who are not able to sustain running or walking activity,” according to experts at the University of Kent in the UK.
There are quite specific movement patterns involved in cycling that engage different muscles at different parts of the pedal stroke, according to a study in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. That study identified the tibialis anterior – a large muscle in the calf – as one of the “most essential” muscles involved in cycling. And yet, even despite its essential role, this muscle was still less activated during cycling than walking, meaning it could cause less strain.
“It is suggested that cycling might be a useful exercise in the rehabilitation of patients with injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament of the knee or achilles’ tendon,” the researchers wrote.
A word of warning, though: as well as the dangers inherent to riding on the road, there are some injuries associated with cycling. Despite being a non–contact, low impact exercise, as many as 85% of athletes engaged in the sport will suffer from an overuse injury, according to experts from the University of Chicago.
Five low impact workouts: Swimming
Swimming is often described as the ultimate in low impact workouts. With your body suspended in the water, there is almost no impact involved. A research paper from the World Health Organization said low impact aerobic exercise such as swimming may be associated with a “decreased risk of injury and provide great benefits at the anthropometric, neuromuscular, metabolic, and psychological levels.”
As well as helping to prevent diseases such as arterial hypertension, coronary disease, and osteoporosis, the WHO said that low-impact exercises including swimming also “significantly improve the quality of life of individuals and aid their independence, especially at a more advanced age”.
Plus, according to scientists at the University of South Carolina, swimming, as well as providing a “range of health benefits”, is a “viable alternative to other forms of physical activity. Our results show that swimming appears to have health benefits similar to those of running and generally was more beneficial than walking or a sedentary lifestyle,” the scientists said.
Five low impact workouts: rowing
Because rowing is done in a seated position, without forcing the joints in your legs to bear your weight, it is considered a low impact exercise. But it is definitely not low intensity: elite rowers are known as some of the fittest and most powerful athletes, in part because it’s such a full-body exercise.
“Rowing involves almost all muscles during the stroke and competition requires a large oxygen uptake,” according to a research paper in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. And another study, published in the Physiological Research journal, found that rowing increased stroke volume and cardiac output – two key metrics associated with exercise – to a greater extent than cycling.
Take a look at the rowing machines on sale to scoop up a great discount on a low impact exercise machine. When considering rowing machines vs treadmills, for example, the former offer a great workout without putting too much strain on your joints.
Five low impact workouts: Nordic walking
You may never have heard of Nordic walking, but it’s recommended by the UK’s National Health Service as a “full-body exercise that's easy on the joints and suitable for all ages and fitness levels”. It involves a similar motion to what cross-country skiers do – pushing yourself along with poles as you walk – just on solid ground such as trails, rather than in the snow. According to Harvard Health Publishing, associated with Harvard Medical School, it was originally designed as a summer training alternative for cross-country skiers and is an all-round exercise, combining “cardiovascular exercise with a vigorous muscle workout for your shoulders, arms, core, and legs”.
And according to another study, carried out by experts at the University of Verona in Italy, Nordic walking can achieve “greater and faster benefits” compared to walking, and can be used as a tool to help tackle obesity.