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Injury Prevention

18 Low Impact Workout Options to Keep You Moving

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Are you looking for low impact workout options?

Low impact workouts are highly accessible; whether you’re nursing an injury or your daily motivation has stalled.

But don’t confuse low impact for low intensity. 

Let’s explore 18 low impact workout options (and injury prevention tips) to cover all your bases!

Disclaimer: Always seek proper instruction before initiating an exercise program. Not everything is great for everyone! Consult with your qualified health care practitioners for an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stay healthy and injury-free! Read the full disclaimer.

LOW IMPACT WORKOUT VS LOW INTENSITY WORKOUT

Impact and intensity are often used interchangeably; however, they aren’t the same.

High impact/high-intensity workouts typically feature activities such as running, jumping, burpees, speed drills, quick directional changes, and other sport-specific movements. 

Running and jumping can produce forces up to 5x your bodyweight!

Low impact workouts decrease the stress on joints and soft tissues by eliminating jumping and other substantial forces on your body.

During low impact cardio, one foot always maintains contact with the ground. 

Low intensity means your heart rate will stay in a lower working zone, and from a perceived exertion standpoint, you won’t feel like you’re working too hard and can still hold a conversation.

Not all low impact workouts are low intensity!

An example of low impact / low intensity would be a beginner yoga class or Tai Chi.

An example low impact/high(er) intensity would be using an elliptical or stationary bike with some resistance, or a step aerobics class. 

WHO CAN BENEFIT FROM LOW IMPACT WORKOUTS?

Low impact is for everyone, but there may be times when you need it most such as:

  • Recovering from an injury or illness
  • Pregnancy
  • Those with bone, joint, or connective tissue disorders
  • Managing chronic medical conditions
  • Beginners or returning to fitness after a break
  • Low motivation, but you still want to move!

Let’s get into it.

1. WALKING

Walking is one of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to get moving. For a truly low impact walk, keep yourself on level surfaces. 

To add an additional challenge, try tackling some hills or varying your speed to get your heart rate up. 

INJURY PREVENTION TIPS

Don’t walk carrying weights in your hands. 

I know this sounds like a good idea, but over time it can lead to postural muscle imbalances causing neck, shoulder, or elbow pain. Adding weight isn’t always the answer. 

The same goes for ankle weights. 

One walk might not be so bad, but if you continue this for several weeks/months, you’re likely to create other issues.

For my treadmill walkers, avoid holding the handrails the entire time. 

When we walk, there’s a natural degree of rotation that goes through the body for efficient movement. Reciprocally swinging the arms helps counterbalance this movement.

When you hold on to the treadmill and fix your arms in a static position, that rotation still has to come from somewhere, in this case, at the expense of your low back and lower body.

Try to keep your walking pattern as normal as possible to avoid creating new injuries. And if you’re terrified for your balance, the treadmill might not be the safest place for you.

2. ELLIPTICAL

Ellipticals allow you to mimic a running motion without the impact. Adjustable resistance and incline further increase the challenge.

Elliptical machines have a lot of variability from model to model, so if one doesn’t work for you, try different types.

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

A common complaint with elliptical use is numbness in the toes. 

This is often due to constant pressure through the forefoot during the gait cycle.

When you’re walking or running, you have to pick your foot up to advance it, so the tissues get a break. On the elliptical, this isn’t the case. 

Additionally, people often put all their weight in the forefoot, instead of distributing it evenly through all points of the foot. This will also better engage the muscles of the posterior chain (backside) of the body.

3. STAIRMASTER

Want to get your heart rate up in a hurry? Stairclimbers are the way to go. 

You’ll typically see two kinds: a more massive machine that looks like a rolling staircase, and a smaller one people might refer to as a “stepper.” Both are fine. It just depends on what you like.

INJURY PREVENTION TIPS

No matter what kind you’re using, avoid leaning over the handrails like you’re hanging on for dear life. 

I know this may make it seem like you can go faster, take more resistance, or whatever, but the truth is, it’s not doing you any favors. 

You’ll get a better workout if you stand up straight and engage your muscles properly. 

Also, leave out the kicks that are so popular these days. 

I know the fitness magazine promised you some magical glute workout, but the reality is you’re wasting your time. 

If glute strength is your goal, there are better ways to do that (that actually work).

Read more about Stairmaster Workout Tips here. 

4. STATIONARY BIKE

Nothing groundbreaking here, but stationary bikes can be a low impact friendly tool. They’re also a piece of cardio equipment that’s easy to have at home.

Varying the resistance can give your intensity a boost. 

INJURY PREVENTION TIPS

Make sure to adjust the seat height appropriately and keep your knees and toes straight ahead while pedaling. 

To make cardio machines less boring, try stringing together 10 minutes on several different types. 

You can also try my method of using Aaptiv to follow a “class.” Pick your type of equipment, time, and difficulty level, and the trainer will guide you through a workout. You’ll get more out of it than just mindlessly pedaling away to whatever bad TV is on. 

Read my full review of the Aaptiv fitness app here.

5. INDOOR CYCLE CLASS

Are you looking for a more exciting workout? Try a spin class.

Spinning takes the stationary bike game to a whole new level.

Unlike riding outside, you have total control over your “hills” by adjusting the resistance.

INJURY PREVENTION TIP 

Read the full article for all the details on how not to get hurt in cycle class.

6. SWIMMING

Swimming is a total body workout and is low impact on most of the body except the shoulders.

When I say impact, in this case, I mean stress and strain on the shoulder joint and surrounding tissues. Swimming requires a lot more demand on the upper body.

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

Mix up your strokes and work in some kickboard work to give your shoulders a break and work different muscle groups. 

Related Read: Keys to Maintain Healthy Shoulders

swimmer doing laps low impact workout
microgen / depositphotos.com

7. UBE

Have you ever noticed a strange machine tucked away in the corner that looks like a bicycle for arms?

Well, it is! UBE stands for upper body ergometer.

If you’ve ever been to physical therapy for your shoulders, you know what this is. Guess what? It’s not just for rehab!

The UBE can be a great warm-up before workouts, especially before upper body strengthening. It can also be an excellent choice to get some cardio if you’ve got a lower-body injury.

Bonus – it’s usually vacant because no one knows why they should use it. 

INJURY PREVENTION TIP 

The UBE is a repetitive motion that most of us aren’t used to. Six minutes on this machine can seem like a lifetime. Gradually work your way up in time and resistance to avoid repetitive elbow strain. 

It’s also good to alternate between “pedaling” forward and backward. Every minute or two, try switching directions to work different muscles. 

8. STEP AEROBICS

Yes, step aerobics is still a thing, and it’s the ultimate bang for your low-impact buck. 

Step aerobics is high on intensity and low on impact. Remove those mental images of fluorescent leotards and give this cult classic a try.

I won’t lie, step aerobics can be intimidating, and there is more of a learning curve, so temper your expectations. Once you catch on, you’re in for a calorie-torching session.

Seems like too much going on at once? You can always basic step your way through as you learn the moves. Step aerobics is highly choreographed to the beat of the music. If you can mark time, you can do step. 

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

Start with no risers. 

The average step is 4” high. You can then add a set of 2” risers to increase the difficulty.

Due to the quick movements and directional changes in step aerobics, higher isn’t better and may increase your chances of injury. 

4-6” steps are the optimal height for step aerobics – That looks like no risers or a step with one set of risers. Any higher and you’re an accident waiting to happen. 

You can even do the class without any step at all! 

9. PILATES

In search of a low impact core workout that delivers?

Pilates focuses on core and postural muscle strengthening as well as flexibility. It’s designed to be practiced slowly and with control. 7-10 reps are surprisingly fatiguing when done correctly.

This functional integration of core and postural muscles improves strength, posture, mind-body connection, and flexibility. 

Pilates can be mat-based or apparatus-based such as in a studio with reformers. 

Mat Pilates has a lot to offer and can be easily done at home. 

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

If kneeling or other positions causes discomfort, invest in a good quality padded mat. The extra padding will help protect your joints and make movements more comfortable.  

One of my favorite mats for both yoga and Pilates is the Jade Harmony mat.

This mat is lightweight to carry around, but has amazing padding and grip, without compromising your ability to feel the floor.

woman doing cobra yoga pose as part of a low impact workout.
mirage_studio / bigstockphoto.com

10. YOGA

A regular yoga practice can help develop flexibility, strength, balance, and calming a busy mind. 

There are many different styles of yoga ranging in difficulty, so there’s something for everyone. If you’re new to yoga, look for beginner level classes and familiarize yourself with the basic poses.

INJURY PREVENTION TIPS

Props such as blocks, straps, blankets, and bolsters can further support the body to deepen poses and prevent injuries. 

Blocks are ideal for bringing the floor up to you.

Straps can assist with stretching by extending your limbs without compromising form.

Blankets can pad and cushion, for example, knees during kneeling positions.

Bolsters are useful to support various positions, particularly in slower-paced classes.

If kneeling bothers your knees, get your hands on these Gaiam knee pads. The gel-like material offers a fantastic cushion, and you can even use them under your elbows or hands!

Read Yoga Blocks for Injury Prevention for more insight into how this versatile prop can help you!

11. LOW IMPACT CARDIO KICKBOXING

Technically, you can make any fitness class a low impact option with a few minor modifications. 

To make cardio kickboxing low impact, limit jumping, and consider substituting high knees or toe taps for kicks. 

INJURY PREVENTION TIPS

Even at low intensities, there’s still a lot of pivoting and twisting that goes along with cardio kickboxing. 

Wear appropriate cross-training shoes, and don’t keep your feet planted to avoid placing extra stress on the knees.

Another no-no is punching while holding weights.

Long story short, I’ve been in more than one cardio kick class where the instructor had this fabulous idea for everyone to grab 3-5# dumbbells.

If your goal is to develop shoulder and elbow tendonitis, then this is the way to go. Punching with dumbbells is inappropriate for the general population.

My physical therapist brain was exploding watching all these poor people put themselves at serious risk for injury – and thinking they were doing something good for themselves!

Guess what? At the next class, many were complaining of shoulder pain.

1# weighted gloves may be an option only for those who have good form already.

12. BARRE FITNESS

Barre fitness is a loose term for classes inspired by ballet. 

Not all barre classes produce the same results, and I’m a fan of Bar Method, as it’s created with physical therapists, and it’s the only barre class I’ve seen noticeable results from.

For anyone laughing at barre fitness, I challenge you to a class. (You’ll probably want an Epsom salt bath the next day, just sayin’.)

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

Keep your weights light.

Barre classes often feature high reps with low weight for upper extremity strengthening. Depending on your level, starting with 1-3# is appropriate until you learn how you respond to the exercises. 

1-3# doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you need to maintain a position for 60+ seconds, 3# starts to feel like 50#. 

13. DANCE FITNESS

Many people enjoy dancing and flock to Zumba and other dance fitness classes because it’s fun and doesn’t feel like a workout. 

Dance fitness makes the list of low impact workout options and can be moderate to high on the intensity scale, depending on what you put into it.

INJURY PREVENTION TIPS

Wear the right shoes! 

Wearing running shoes to a dance fitness class is a major no-no and increases your risk for a knee injury. 

If dance fitness is part of your routine, invest in some dance fitness shoes.

14. LOW IMPACT STRENGTH TRAINING

Don’t shy away from strengthening just because you’re looking for low impact. Strength training is an essential piece of a well-rounded fitness program not only for muscles but bone health too.

To stay low impact, you can decrease the resistance and increase the repetitions. 

Don’t underestimate the power of bodyweight exercises. 

Light weights, resistance bands, and TRX suspension trainers can offer other low impact resistance alternatives. 

TRX can also help with squat form by assisting with upper body counterbalance and taking pressure off the knees.

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

Form is always the most important to avoid injury with strengthening exercises. Even light weights can cause a problem if you’re not performing movements properly. 

man doing wall ball squats as part of a low impact workout
Maridav / bigstockphoto.com

15. TAI CHI

Tai Chi focuses on slow and controlled movements to improve energy flow and integrate the mind and body. 

While this won’t contribute to cardio or calorie burning, Tai Chi can improve strength, balance, and proprioceptive awareness. It has been proven an effective method of fall prevention in older adults.

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

Don’t lock your knees. 

Keep a slight bend at all times to work muscles more effectively and aids in returning blood to the heart. 

16. WATER AEROBICS

Water aerobics is a mixed bag and tends to get a bad rep that it’s only for the retired crowd. I won’t lie, that’s mostly who attends, but it also depends on the venue.

Water aerobics involves doing exercises in the pool and using the buoyancy and resistance of the water for aerobic and strengthening activities. 

Chest deep water will reduce the force of your body weight by 70%.

Even water walking in waist-deep water can be a low impact activity when recovering from a lower-body injury.

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

Water still does provide resistance, and it’s still possible to overdo it, especially when we start talking about tools like foam weights and other apparatus to increase difficulty.

Read Beat the Heat with Aquatic Exercise for more tips!

17. ROWING MACHINE

Rowing machines are making a comeback. Though it sounds easy, this total body workout gets fatiguing in a hurry. 

And guess what? It’s one of the most misused pieces of cardio equipment at the gym. 

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

A lot of people get rowing wrong.

I remember watching a woman in a small group training session row with terrible asking-for-an-injury form, week after week.

All I could think of was, “how can this trainer, that she’s paying for by the way, never correct her!” 

I digress, that’s a problem for another day. 

But that’s not going to be you, because you’re going to watch this great video demonstrating how to use a rowing machine properly!

18. INTERVAL TRAINING

Lately, it seems like the name of the game is high-intensity everything like as if you’re not cool if you don’t bring yourself within a few seconds of passing out.

Not everyone wants to (or should) work out like that. 

But interval training alone doesn’t mean high impact. 

Interval training means varying your speed, weights, or difficulty to boost your workout. 

INJURY PREVENTION TIP

Always listen to your body and work at your level. 

Read Tabata vs. HIIT vs. Interval Training – What’s the Difference?

LOW IMPACT WORKOUT AT-HOME RESOURCES

Here are some great resources to get started with low impact workouts today!

FITNESS APP & STREAMING OPTIONS

My Fitness App – Access to options/programs for all levels or customize your workout, including fitness equipment you have available. 

My Fitness App has workouts for walking, beginner fitness, HIIT, cardio, strength training, yoga, prenatal, foam rolling, and more. 

With free 7 minute workouts, there’s no excuse not to get moving. 

YogaDownloadBring the studio to you with plenty of beginner yoga options and access to beginner pose guides to get confident with your form. 

Aaptiv – Aaptiv is my go-to for making cardio machines less monotonous. Follow an audio “class” for elliptical, treadmill, or stationary bike. 

There are also options for strength training, stretching, yoga, and Pilates. All levels welcome.

YOUTUBE LOW IMPACT WORKOUT OPTIONS

Denise Austin – I still have some of her DVDs lying around somewhere, but now she has a YouTube channel with Hi/Lo Cardio options, Pilates, and strengthening workouts. 

Lottie Murphy – One of Pilates’s critical things is that it needs to be done slowly, precisely, and with control. Lottie Murphy does a great job of encouraging this through her at-home Pilates workout videos. 

Heather Robertson – Her YouTube channel has a full library of workouts for every level, including a sizeable low impact selection. Her workouts are great if you don’t like a lot of chit-chat. 

As with all videos, be prepared to BYO modifications.

Want to see more of my favorites? Head over to the resources page. 

FINAL THOUGHTS ON LOW IMPACT WORKOUTS

You can make any workout low impact with a few small tweaks. 

For more tips on how to modify any movement to your level, read this article on Exercise Modifications. 

Incorporating a variety of different types of activities can help increase overall health benefits as well as decrease risk for injury. Aim to include elements of cardio, strength training, flexibility/mobility, and balance in your fitness routine. 

It’s possible to design a full fitness program around low impact activities or cross-train with them a few times per week.

Low impact activities can also make it easier to stick to a fitness program. 

Ultimately the best activities for you will be the ones you enjoy that you can consistently perform. 

featured image credit: CreativePhotoTeam.com / bigstockphoto.com

References

Frye, Brian & Scheinthal, Stephen & Kemarskaya, Tatyana & Pruchno, Rachel. (2007). Tai Chi and Low Impact Exercise: Effects on the Physical Functioning and Psychological Well-Being of Older People. Journal of Applied Gerontology – J APPL GERONTOL. 26. 433-453. 10.1177/0733464807306915. 

Mohamed, Said & Lamya, Ncir & Olfa, Nejlaoui & Hamda, Mansour. (2015). Effects of high-impact aerobics vs. mixed low-impact aerobics and strength training program on body composition, physical fitness and CVD risk factors in overweight and obese grade I women. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 57. 10.23736/S0022-4707.16.05857-X. 

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