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Every now and then, we have to give the body a break from excessive pounding (read: running, dance classes, and contact sports). Luckily low-impact workouts are typically easier on the body, especially our joints, and can be a great way to get in a heart-pumping workout while reducing the risk of injury ((Physical activity at leisure and risk of osteoarthritis. Lane, N.E. Division of Rheumatology, University of California at San Francisco, CA. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 1996 Sep;55(9):682-4.)) ((Impact and overuse injuries in runners. Hreljac, A. Kinesiology and Health Science Department, California State University, Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 2004 May;36(5):845-9.)) ((Effects of low-impact, moderate-intensity exercise training with and without wrist weights on functional capacities and mood states in older adults. Engels, H.J., Drouin, J., Zhu, W., et al. Division of HPR, Exercise Science, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI. Gerontology, 1998;44(4):239-44.)). Plus, it's a no-brainer that exercise is great for keeping the heart healthy and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease—something that's never too early to start thinking about ((Nutrition and the healthy heart with an exercise boost. Whayne, T.F., Maulik, N. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 2012 Aug;90(8):967-76.)) ((Exercise type and intensity in relation to coronary heart disease in men. Tanasescu, M., Leitzmann, M.F., Rimm, E.B., et al. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, USA. 2002 Oct 23-30;288(16):1994-2000.)).
Most trainers define low-impact exercises as motions where one foot stays on the ground at all times. But rather than doing single-leg deadlifts until keeling over, we figured it’d be best to round up 21 low- (or no!) impact exercises to keep things varied and full o’ fun. They're perfect for when you're just getting started, dealing with an injury, or just want to try something new!
Get Low (Impact)—Your Action Plan
1. Walking: These boots are made for walking, so perhaps we should listen up. Walking is a stress-free way to stay movin’. And tweaking that walking routine can really heat things up: Hit the hills, add dumbbells, or weighted ankle or wrist straps to really get that heart rate up ((Intensity and energy cost of weighted walking vs. running for men and women. Miller, J.F., Stamford, B.A., Journal of Applied Physiology, 1987 Apr;62(4):1497-501.)).
2. Elliptical: Sorry treadmill, elliptical takes the cake when it comes to putting less stress on those legs. Try spicing up the routine with these workout ideas, while getting in a sneaky upper-body workout too.
3. Stairmaster: Not all gyms have staircases, but they probably have a Stairmaster. (Which is obviously way more exciting than a treadmill.) No gym nearby? No problem. Hit the real stairs with this quick but crazy effective staircase workout.
4. Strength training: We suggested 20 reasons to strength train, and here is one more: Most strength training exercises are low-impact and still work up a sweat ((Muscle forces or gravity: what predominates mechanical loading on bone? Kohrt, W.M., Barry, D.W., Schward, R.S. Division of Geriatric Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Colorado Denver, Aurora, CO. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2009 Nov;41(11):2050-5.)). (Keep in mind those monster box jumps wearing a weighted vest doesn't exactly qualify.) Try squats, lunges, or supermans!
5. Cycling: Thank mom and dad for teaching us to take off the training wheels. Hopping on the bike is a fun way to fit in some exercise, with a lower chance of damaging the joints. And you don't even need to sign up for a spin class. Try this 30-minute cycling workout to keep things interesting and make time fly.
6. Rowing machine: Spice up the cardio routine and bring the water sports to the gym? Yes, please. The rowing machine (impact not included) is an intense and fun way to work those arms, back, legs, and core. Score!
7. Kayaking: Want to actually hit the water? Grab a kayak and jump on in! Kayaking works the arms and core (no crunches necessary) and can burn up to 400 calories an hour while seeing some stellar sights.
8. Tai Chi: Try some meditation in motion to give those bones a break. This gentle, fluid movement may also help ward off headaches, helping to improve flexibility, too ((A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tai Chi for Tension Headaches. Abbott, R.B., Hui, K.K., Hays, R.D., et al. Center for East West Medicine, Department of Medicine and Division of General Internal Medicine and Health Services Research, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2007 Mar;4(1):107-113. Epub 2006 Aug 12.)). (Whether that includes a hangover headache is unclear.)
9. Hiking: Another way to spice up a walk is to add some hiking terrain (opt for flatter areas, though, to keep impact to a minimum). Ready to strap on the boots and hit the woods? Just make sure to stay in-the-know about hiking do's and don'ts.
10. Rock climbing: To take off some stress, head to the nearest wall (err, rock wall, that is!). Climbing movements are typically slow and controlled, which works the muscles without the added strain ((Functional ankle control of rock climbers. Schweizer, A>, Bircher, H.P., Kaelin, X, et al. Kantonsspital Liestal, Orthopaedic Department, Rheinstrasse 26, Liestal 4410, Switzerland. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2005 Jul;39(7):429-31.)).
11. Yoga: It’s no tackle football, but the NFL pros are doing it. So ease up and add some spinal twists and half moons to that fitness routine. Or try aerial yoga to really lift the stress off the ground.
12. Pilates: High-impact sports won’t magically give us six-pack abs, that we know. The potential solution? Just roll out the mat for a quick Pilates session to strengthen the core and help increase flexibility.
13. TRX: Also known as “total-body resistance exercise,” TRX is a strap suspension system (say that three times fast) that’s easy on the joints but a serious challenge for your whole body. Head to the nearest gym to learn the ropes. Once you're comfortable, see if you can master all 45 of these awesome TRX exercises.
14. Swimming: Skip the pool floats and start doing laps. Swimming is a great low-impact exercise with a boatload of benefits, from strengthening the shoulders to improving lung function ((Effects of weight bearing and non-weight bearing exercises on bone properties using calcaneal quantitative ultrasound. Yung, P.S., Lai, Y.M., et al. Department of Optometry and Radiography, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2005 Aug;39(8):547-51.)).
15. Water aerobics: If laps in the pool gets repetitive, bring the aerobics class to the water and start treading or doing the pike scull. Some gyms even offer treadmills in the pool to really keep things interesting. (We may want to rethink calling them "dreadmills.")
16. Snowshoeing: For a different kind of walk in the park, snowshoeing is the way to go. Working against the resistance of the snow will expend more energy than walking on dry land, while staying tame on the body ((The energy expenditure of snowshoeing in packed vs. unpacking snow at low-level walking speeds. Connolly, DA. Human Performance Laboratory, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2002 Nov;16(4):606-10)).
17. Step aerobics: For a good cardio workout without all the poundage, research suggests pulling out the step platform ((Osteogenic index of step exercise depending on choreographic movements, session duration, and stepping rate. Santos-Rocha, R.A., Oliverira, C.S., Veloso, A.P. Sports Sciences School of Rio Maior, Portugal. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006 Oct;40(10):860-6; discussion 866. Epub 2006 Aug 18.)). Some say an hour of step aerobics could be equivalent to a mid-distance run.
18. Ballroom dancing: Take a tip from Dancing With the Stars. Not only is dancing super sexy, it’s often easy on the body and a guaranteed great workout ((The metabolic cost of two ranges of arm position height with and without hand weights during low impact aerobic dance. Carroll, M.W., Otto, R.M., Wygand, J. Human Performance Lab, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 1991 Dec;62(4):420-3.)). So go grab a partner and give those dips, twirls, and whirls a spin!
19. Rollerblading: Let’s take a trip back to the 90s and strap on some skates. Gliding on pavement won’t fail to burn calories while putting less stress on limbs. Now, if only stopping was that easy…
20. Cross-country skiing: This flat-terrain travel keeps things heated—even in the snow. So strap on the skis and start pumping those poles. You’ll keep the pressure light (as snow) on the body.
21. Golf: Now, now—golf isn’t just for the pros (or the retired). Take a trip to the fairway and get that swing on. Bonus points for skipping the golf cart and walking the course!
Originally posted April 2012, updated August 2014.