Trainers Want You to Try These Low-Impact Cardio Workouts

Trainers Want You to Try These Low-Impact Cardio Workouts

Low-impact cardio is having a moment right now, thanks to a surge in popularity of workouts that are designed to be gentler on your joints. The best low-impact cardio exercises help give you a good workout without aggravating existing injuries or sensitive spots on your body. If they’re engaging for you, even better.

It’s important to point out that low-impact exercise doesn’t mean you won’t push yourself. Health experts swear you can still build your fitness without running or jumping.

Meet the experts: Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Core Collective located in Brookline, MA; NSCA-certified trainerAlfonso Moretti; Andy Fata-Chan, D.P.T., New York-based physical therapist and coach at Moment Physical Therapy & Performance

Here’s what you need to know about low-impact cardio, plus a few exercises to try out.

What is low-impact cardio?

There are a few things that classify a workout as low impact. “The first thing to consider is the distance that your leg travels to and from the ground,” says Andy Fata-Chan, D.P.T., New York-based physical therapist and coach at Moment Physical Therapy & Performance. “Lower-impact forms of cardio typically don’t have the feet leaving the ground or they do minimally.”

Speed is also a factor. “You don’t necessarily pick up the legs more in jogging compared to walking, but the speed increases, which makes the exercise higher impact,” Fata-Chan says.

Ultimately, “low-impact cardio is defined as low stress on the joints,” says NSCA-certified trainer Alfonso Moretti.

Health benefits of low-impact cardio

There are plenty of health benefits to keep in mind when it comes to doing low-impact cardio. “For starters, there’s a lower barrier to entry,” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Core Collective located in Brookline, MA. But there are even more perks to consider.

  • There’s a lower risk of injury. When compared to high-impact exercises, you’re simply pounding the ground less with low-impact cardio. That lowers the odds you’ll get injured when you work out. “Exercise is very safe, and the injury rates are not high to begin with, but low-impact cardio reduces that risk even further by eliminating the forces that your body has to sustain over time,” Fata-Chan says. “You can even increase the intensity in most cases without increasing the amount of impact you have to sustain.”

  • You can tolerate more training. “If you’re trying to improve your heart health, one of the main drivers is the total volume of training,” Fata-Chan says. “The benefit of low-impact cardio is that your body can tolerate higher volumes of training without putting too much load onto the body.” So, depending on how hard you push yourself, you may be able to bike and swim for longer than you would if you were doing a high-impact workout like running.

  • It’s suitable for all levels. High-impact cardio isn’t bad, but the body needs to be able to handle that level of pressure, Fata-Chan says. “Previous experience with strength and mobility training can help reduce the risk of getting injured,” he says. But low-impact cardio “takes that risk out of the equation and is a great entry point for anyone getting started with aerobic exercise,” Fata-Chan says. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a great workout in, though: Low-impact isn’t the same as low intensity.

The best low-impact cardio workouts

There’s a wide range of workouts that can be classified as low-impact. Each of these has the ability to be more or less challenging, depending on what you’re after.

1. Walking

Walking seems basic, but it’s been gaining steam as a form of exercise over the past few years. Rebel Wilson said she relied on walking to lose weight during her Year of Health, and Peloton now has walking routines on its app. “Walking is the most accessible form of low-impact cardio,” Fata-Chan says. “This can be a great starting point, especially for people who are just getting started.” He recommends aiming for 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, which has been show to have benefits from a lower risk of dying early to better mental health. To make your walking workout harder, try doing things like picking up your pace, adding more distance, or increasing the incline during treadmill workouts.

2. Swimming

When you swim, the water supports your weight, relieving pressure on your joints. “It is also a form of exercise that makes it easy for you to regulate body temperature due to the cooling effects of being in water,” Fata-Chan says. “This can make longer workouts feel more comfortable, especially during hotter days of the year.” Challenge yourself by increasing the number of laps you do as you go, along with doing speed intervals.

3. Cycling

“Cycling can help build your heart health while simultaneously improving blood flow and mobility of the lower body,” Fata-Chan says. You can also increase intensity of your speed, along with the resistance to make workouts harder and stimulate muscle growth.

4. The elliptical

Using an elliptical machine, along with similar low-impact workouts, is “great because they challenge and work the muscular and cardiorespiratory systems at the same time,” Moretti says. “You can build muscle strength and mass while improving heart health and do it with no impact to your joints.” Consider increasing the machine’s resistance, your speed, and the amount of time you work out to build your fitness level with time.

5. Rowing

“Rowing is one of the most efficient forms of cardio because it uses about 85% of the muscles in your body,” Fata-Chan says. “It is very easy to change the resistance and intensity, which makes it safe for all fitness levels.” Row in intervals with bursts of speed or doing longer endurance sessions for harder workouts.

6. Yoga

There’s a lot to love about yoga, including that it can help with your posture, muscle tone, and stress levels. It also is an easy practice to pick up: If you don’t want to shell out for a class, you can stream something online or use an app.

7. Pilates

Pilates has a reputation for being a tough workout—and it also happens to be low impact. This form of exercise is a full-body workout that improves muscle tone, flexibility, and strength, according to the Cleveland Clinic. You can always challenge yourself more in Pilates by doing additional reps or holding poses for longer periods of time.

8. Stair climbing

Stair climbing is an aerobic exercise that can seriously wipe you out. Try doing intervals, increasing your speed, and spending more time climbing to challenge yourself. You can also do this on a machine at the gym.

9. Circuit training

“Circuit training can be a great way to avoid overuse injuries by combining a variety of different movements,” says Fata-Chan. “This can be done with a combination of bodyweight movements, cardio equipment, and more.” Try doing things like 30 seconds of planking, followed by 30 seconds of floor sliders, and a minute of stair climbing. It’ll get your heart rate up fast. “There is an unlimited amount of customization to make it work for you,” Fata-Chan says.

10. Battle ropes

Battle ropes can also get your heart rate up quickly, and they don’t require any lower body pounding on your part. Use these in interval training sessions, trying out different movements with your arms to target new areas.

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