Updated July 2021
Walking, using elliptical or rowing machines, cycling, and swimming are all low-impact cardiovascular exercises. They are considered low impact because they’re either not weight-bearing (like swimming) or involve one foot always being on the ground (like walking).
“Impact” simply refers to the impact on your joints. It doesn’t mean these exercises have a low impact on your health and fitness. In fact, exercises that are low impact can be very challenging and extremely beneficial to your health.
You can easily meet guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week with all low-impact activities.
Low-impact workouts are ideal for people who have joint or knee pain that gets worse with running or plyometric (jumping) exercises. While weighted exercise may be more effective in building bone or preventing bone loss, low-impact exercise is less likely to cause fractures or overuse injuries that sometimes come with high-impact workouts.
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Benefits of Low-Impact Exercise
Low-impact exercises can have big health benefits.
A 2018 study in Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal found that walking helped preserve bone health for women and prevent osteoporosis.
Swimming provides a host of health and fitness benefits, too, according to a 2018 analysis in Sports Medicine. In a review of 29 studies, researchers found that swimming helped people lose weight and improve cardiorespiratory fitness. (Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to how well your body transports oxygen while exercising.)
Whether you opt for land, water, or wheels, here are a few low-impact workouts to try.
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Two Ways to Walk
Tempo walk: A “tempo” workout means maintaining a vigorous pace over a long period of time. It’s not a sprint, but it takes a big effort to keep up the pace. Either outdoors or on a treadmill, warm up by walking at a moderately intense pace for five minutes. Then, walk at an uncomfortably intense (but manageable) pace for 15 minutes. End by walking for 10 minutes at moderate intensity.
Ladder walk: This treadmill workout uses inclines. Warm up by walking briskly (between 3.0 mph and 4.5 mph) for five minutes at a 1% incline. Increase the incline by 0.5% every two minutes until you get to an incline of 4% at 15 minutes. (You may need to drop your pace slightly, but try to maintain it as best you can.) At 17 minutes, begin “laddering” back down by 0.5% every two minutes until you’re back to a 1% incline.
Try Lap Swimming
If you’ve never tried lap swimming but have access to a pool, consider taking a swimming lesson or two. You can learn a surprising amount about breathing, stroke, and kicking techniques in just a few lessons.
Swimming is all about creating a rhythm with your breathing, whether you breathe every second or third stroke. Set a goal for the number of laps you’d like to be able to swim consecutively. For example, 33 lengths in a 25-meter pool is about a half mile. Or focus on time, building up to 30 minutes without stopping.
Take a Ride
Cycling classes introduce fun and rhythm into a stationary bike workout. These classes offer excellent low-impact, high-intensity workouts.
If you have a bicycle and prefer to ride outdoors, you have many options. Hitting the trail and taking a long ride is a terrific low-impact workout that you can make as easy — or as difficult — as you want.
Another option is to find a nearby hill and do some climbs. Here’s how:
- Ideally, you want a hill that takes about three minutes to climb. It should be steep enough to be challenging, but not so steep that you can’t remain seated.
- After riding for five minutes to warm up, bike up the hill at the fastest pace you can and time yourself. Recover as you coast back down the hill.
- Repeat the climb five to eight times, trying not to drop below your previous time.
To learn more about cardio workouts that have little impact on your joints, visit UPMC Orthopaedic Care. To schedule an appointment, call 1-866-987-6784.
Health and Human Services, Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf
Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal, An Insight into the Effect of Exercises on the Prevention of Osteoporosis and Associated Fractures in High-risk Individuals. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5796736/
Sports Medicine, Chronic Physiological Effects of Swim Training Interventions in Non-Elite Swimmers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29086218/
MySwimPro, How Many Swimming Laps Are In One Mile? https://myswimpro.com/blog/2017/02/18/how-many-swimming-laps-are-in-one-mile/
About UPMC Orthopaedic Care
As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, UPMC treats a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. Whether you have bone, muscle, or joint pain, we provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. As leaders in research and clinical trials with cutting-edge tools and techniques, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside appears on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the top hospitals in the country for orthopaedics.