Low-impact exercise offers high-impact fun

Does a low-impact workout deliver real benefits?

Humana members engaging in low-impact exercise

Low-impact exercise is healthy exercise and enjoyable when a harder workout is not right for you. But can low-impact exercise help you burn calories and lose weight? Absolutely, says Paige Waehner, a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise.

High-impact exercise isn't for everyone

If you're trying to lose weight, raising your heart rate helps burn calories. Exercise also strengthens your bones and can help you feel better and have more energy, says Waehner. However, for some people, high-impact exercise just isn't an option. Here are some reasons you may need to avoid high-impact exercise:

  • Pregnancy
  • Injuries in the joints or bones
  • Problems like arthritis or stress fractures
  • Being a beginning exerciser
  • Being very overweight
  • Not liking high-impact exercise

If you've ever jumped rope for the first time in years, you probably felt your heart beating very fast. But you don't have to jump around to get a good workout, says Waehner. Low-impact exercise simply means one foot is always in contact with the ground. It can raise your heart rate, but you may have to work a little harder.

Making the most of low-impact exercise

If you can't or don't want to do high-impact exercises, there are some excellent alternatives. Here are a few low-impact exercises that can help you get the most out of your workouts.

Go for a walk

Walking is by far the most popular low-impact exercise. To get your heart rate up, here are some things to try.

  • Walk faster. Picking up the pace can help increase the benefits of your workouts.
  • Try interval training. You can add short bursts of speed or a steep hill to your walking workouts. This can increase the intensity of your workouts as well as help you burn more calories.
  • Use your arms. A treadmill can help you get a good walk. Just make sure you're not holding onto the arms of the treadmill. When you're walking outside, swing your arms. Holding weights as you walk is not recommended because it can cause injury. Consider using walking poles instead.
  • Mix things up. If walking is currently your only exercise, add other exercises to keep your body active. Trying something new can boost your energy level and help with fat loss.

Take the stairs

Walking up stairs – either real stairs or a moving staircase at the gym – can be a strong workout. It will raise your heart rate, but beginners should be careful. Just add a few minutes to your usual workout. You won't have to do too much or go too fast to get your heart beating.

Enjoy a hike

Hiking can be another good low-impact activity. Hiking works best when you're walking up and down hills, using muscles in the lower body. This can be just what you want for a healthy workout. Add a backpack, and you're burning even more calories.

Join a step aerobics class

Step aerobics is a great low-impact exercise that involves stepping onto a raised platform. This can get your heart rate up without doing any jumping. Using the arms can help as well. You can also try group fitness classes or videos that may offer other low-impact options.

Other ideas

Other low-impact activities that can give you a good workout include cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing or rowing. Any of these activities can be good if you work hard. You may also want to cross-train with higher-impact activities. This can keep your body moving in different ways.

Boost your workouts

The key to effective low-impact exercise is to work a little harder. Use your whole body in each exercise routine. Try some of these ideas for making your workouts more active:

  • Add upper body movements to increase your exercise level. Try swinging your arms when you walk and raising your arms overhead during step or other types of exercise. Choose equipment at the gym with upper body options such as a cross-country ski machine or elliptical trainer.
  • Go faster. Pick up the pace, whether you're walking, cycling or climbing stairs, to make your workouts a little tougher.
  • Use big movements to increase your heart rate. For example, if you are marching in place, work harder by bringing your knees up higher. Another idea is to circle your arms over your head.
  • Involve the lower body. Adding lunges or side steps with squats to your walk will improve your workout while building strength.

Low-impact exercise can be good for the back

Many exercises are easy on the back and good for the heart, says Peter F. Ullrich Jr., M.D. An orthopedist, Dr. Ullrich works with people who have back and spine problems and he recommends:

  • Walking. Dr. Ullrich says walking two to three miles three times a week can be very helpful. Walking is easy on the back and doesn't require any special gear except a good pair of shoes. Walking can be done almost anywhere, including at home on a treadmill.
  • Stationary bicycling. Exercising on a stationary bike allows you to work out while sitting instead of standing. You can choose from upright or recumbent (reclining) bikes. These can be purchased for home use, and many come with different kinds of exercise programs. Cycling or spinning classes are also popular.
  • Elliptical trainer or step machine. With these machines, you are using pedals above the ground instead of stepping on a hard surface. The motor on the machine gives you a smoother step and creates less impact than walking. These machines provide good aerobic exercise and some work out the arms as well. This can make your upper body stronger.
  • Water therapy. If you have too much pain to exercise on a mat or hard floor, consider water therapy. You can move easily in the water, and many exercises are less painful. Doing exercise in the water is easy on the back, says Dr. Ullrich. It can build strength in the low back or neck and reduce back pain. Water exercises are also very good for older people.

Any low-impact exercise you choose should be active enough to increase your heart rate by an age-appropriate amount. Raising the heart rate for at least 20 minutes helps make your heart stronger. It also helps you burn fat and stay fit.

Now that you have some ideas for low-impact exercise, go out and try some! Low-impact exercise is a healthy way to get stronger and feel better.

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