6 Low-Impact Cardio Exercises That Won't Hurt Your Joints

·7 min read
Photo credit: kali9 - Getty Images
Photo credit: kali9 - Getty Images


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If you’re new to working out, easing back into fitness after an injury or simply want a break from intense exercise, low-impact cardio may be the perfect workout for you. Low-impact cardio exercises like swimming, cycling and walking can be both safe and effective as these moves are typically easier on your joints than high-impact exercises like running or jumping rope.

But don't underestimate the benefits of low-impact cardio. You'll build strength, stability and flexibility, and likely find yourself sweating at the end of your workout, says Certified Personal Trainer and Founder of Dynamic Fitness Dianna Falzarano. Here is everything you need to know about low impact cardio workouts, including the benefits and which workout is considered the lowest impact exercise.

Before starting any new fitness regimen, speak with your healthcare provider.

What Are Low Impact Exercises?

These exercises are low-impact and gentle on your joints, and are great for individuals who are new to working out or have recovered from an injury. They're movements in which you always have at least one foot on the ground. Low impact workouts put less physical stress on the joints, whereas high-impact exercises like running and jumping take on more load than just bodyweight.

What Are the Health Benefits of Low-Impact Cardio?

Photo credit: Jamie Grill - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jamie Grill - Getty Images

1. It lowers the risk of injury

Research has suggested that you're less likely to get injured performing low-impact vs. high-impact cardio. For example, compare the impact of a lunge and a jumping lunge. Since a lunge is a stationary exercise, it will put less pressure on your knees and other joints than a jump lunge, which requires both feet to leave the ground. Plus, if you're recovering from an injury or have joint pain from arthritis or other causes, low-impact exercises, with proper form and guidance, will help strengthen your legs without the risk of additional pain or injury.

2. It helps improve mood

Aerobic exercises like swimming, cycling and walking can reduce anxiety, depression and improve mood overall due to exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain, according to research from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Incorporating these workouts into your fitness regimen may be just what you need to improve strength and elevate your mood.

3. It can enhance stability and balance

If you've ever done pilates or yoga, both considered low-impact workouts, you know that your stability and balance are constantly challenged as you progress through moves and poses. Over time, and with consistent practice, you will see vast improvements in these important areas of fitness. Since low-impact exercises require at least one foot to remain on the ground, you can expect many low-impact workouts to include single-leg exercises, which will also challenge your balance and increase stability.

4. It helps get your heart pumping and builds muscle

Low-impact doesn't necessarily mean low-intensity — think about the effort you put in to complete a cycling class or swim a few laps. Other low-impact, high-intensity exercises include battle ropes, which will get your heart pumping and challenge muscle groups from head to toe, and kettlebell swings and strength exercises like squats and deadlifts. The heavier you go with kettlebell swings and strength exercises, the more you'll challenge your muscles without overloading your joints.

The Best Low-Impact Cardio Workouts

Photo credit: The Good Brigade - Getty Images
Photo credit: The Good Brigade - Getty Images

From walking to yoga, there are a variety of low-impact cardio workouts that can be done at home or at the gym. Whether you're looking for low-impact cardio exercises for weight loss or options for low-impact cardio for bad knees, there is something for practically everyone.

1. Walking

Never underestimate the benefits of putting one foot in front of the other. If you're getting back into your routine after an injury or just beginning your fitness journey, start with walking and work up to the CDC recommendation of 10,000 steps a day. If you happen to live in an area with hills, incorporate a few inclines into your walk when you're ready. Hills will help target muscles in your legs and core and get your heart rate up.

2. Swimming

Swimming is considered the lowest impact cardio because it puts very little pressure on the joints and can be done at any age. To increase your heart rate, try this interval: Complete 2 sets of 10 laps of 30 to 45 seconds each lap with 15 second rest in between. Looking to get your heart rate up faster? Increase your pace.

3. Cycling

Cycling is a great option for anyone who has back pain or is recovering from an injury but wants to amp up their cardio intensity. Sign up at your local spin studio, order an at-home exercise bike or take your own two-wheeler out for a spin! Experts recommend cycling three times a week for best results.

4. Elliptical

The elliptical is a great low-impact cardio machine option available at most gyms. To avoid injury, ensure your hand placement and the incline of the elliptical is set to your height and body type. By increasing the resistance and intensity you will definitely work up a sweat in as little as 20 minutes.

5. Yoga

There are numerous benefits of yoga but here are just a few: It can help improve balance, decrease stress, benefit posture and may better overall quality of life. You can stream classes online or on one of the best yoga apps if you can't make it to the studio in-person.

6. Pilates

With its slow, low-impact movements, Pilates has many benefits. Falzarano says Pilates can help increase core strength, improve posture, decrease risk of injuries and enhance body awareness. Look for a local studio or stream mat-style Pilates classes at home. If you're looking to enhance your at-home Pilates workout, consider investing in a high-quality Pilates reformer.

The Best 10 Minute Low-Impact Cardio Home Workout

For this workout, created by Falzarano, you'll need a pair of gliding discs. Using gliders is an effective way to get your heart rate up while challenging your stability and core strength.

  • Perform each exercise for 30 seconds.

  • After each round rest 30-60 seconds.

  • Cycle through the workout three times.

1. Squat Thrusts

Photo credit: nattrass - Getty Images
Photo credit: nattrass - Getty Images

Think of this as a burpee without the pushup. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, a gliding disc under each foot. Bend your knees into a squat position. Place your hands on the floor and slide your legs behind you into a plank position. Hold for a second. Return to squat position. Then plant your feet on the ground and drive through your feet to stand tall. Reach your arms overhead. Repeat for 30 second.

2. Plank to Pike to Pushup

Photo credit: Grace Cary - Getty Images
Photo credit: Grace Cary - Getty Images

Start with a glider under each foot. Find a strong, straight-arm plank with hands slightly wider than the shoulders and legs hip-width apart. Lift your hips toward the ceiling while maintaining a neutral spine. Lower your hips with control back to plank position. Keeping your body in a straight line from head to heels, lower into a pushup. Inhale as you bend the arms, exhale as you press away from the floor. Return to plank position and repeat for 30 second. For more of a challenge, use one glider instead of two and keep the legs zipped together throughout the move.

3. Touchdown Jacks

Photo credit: The Good Brigade - Getty Images
Photo credit: The Good Brigade - Getty Images

Stand with your heels together and toes apart with a glider under each foot. Reach your arms toward the ceiling. Slide your right leg to the right, bending both legs into a squat, and tap the ground with your hands. Slide your right leg back in, stand tall and reach your arms toward the ceiling. Repeat the squat and tap on your left side. Alternate side-to-side for 30 seconds. Be sure to bend both legs and drive through both feet as you stand tall.

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