It’s easy to become intimidated by the world of fitness. Maybe you fail to see yourself in the images of workouts you see on screen, or maybe the complexity or level of difficulty simply turned you off exercise. It’s likely you know someone who swears by CrossFit or is training for a triathlon. Or maybe you’ve seen commercials for intense exercise/training programs or watch “American Ninja Warriors.” If this kind of workout is for you then that’s great.
From the perspective of long-term exercise participation and sustainability, the best exercise is the one that you will do. So, what about those who don’t want to pursue this type of activity, but still recognize that exercise is important? What about those with a joint problem or someone who is recovering from an injury but still wants to stay active? Enter low-impact exercise.
How do you define high- versus low-impact exercise?
Some forms of exercise result in a lot of force or pressure being absorbed by the muscles, bones and joints of the lower body. For example, some researchers have estimated that the force transmitted from the ground up through the legs is equal to roughly 2.5 times a person’s body weight when running1,2 or participating in sports that include running. Similarly, the body’s joints, muscles and bones need to absorb nearly 10 times the body’s weight when jumping or participating in activities that include jumping.3
That’s a lot of force for a body to absorb. While there is no evidence that these forces alone can lead to injury or changes to the joints,1 the force or pressure may lead to discomfort or swelling for those with injured or irritated joints. When exercise hurts, the chances of a person taking part again drop considerably. That’s where low-impact exercise comes in.
Unlike “high-impact” exercise, it’s generally agreed that in low-impact exercise “one foot stays on the ground at all times,”4 resulting in less force being taken through the leg with each movement. Although an imperfect description that doesn’t fit well with some types of low-impact exercise (such as cycling, rowing, or machines like elliptical trainers), this definition helps to highlight that the transfer of weight from one foot to the other during low impact exercise transfers less pressure or force through the foot and leg.
Examples of low-impact exercises include:
Benefits of low-impact exercise
Low impact does not have to equal low-intensity. For example, programs like High Intensity Interval Training or CrossFit can be designed to be low impact. Other exercises like cross-country skiing, cycling and rowing are demanding aerobic activities that are also low impact by nature.
Low impact exercise means that less force is transmitted from the ground up through the legs, which may make exercise more comfortable and feasible for people with joint problems and improve their overall participation in exercise.
Any activity, regardless of intensity, beats being sedentary5,6 and accruing sufficient amounts of moderate activity creates long term health benefits for participants.7
Reasons to consider low-impact exercise
Walking is one of the lowest cost, most accessible activities there is, requiring no facility memberships or special clothing to begin and can be easily incorporated into daily living activities. For people who are struggling to get active or who have a limited exercise background, incorporating 30 minutes of walking into their daily routine is a great place to start.
Some forms of low-impact exercise provide health benefits beyond traditional measures of strength and endurance. For example, both social dance8 and tai chi9 have been shown to improve balance and coordination, and some research suggests that regular participation in these activities helps with memory and cognitive function.
Low impact doesn’t necessarily equal low intensity. For example TRX (body weight resisted exercise), CrossFit and HIIT (high intensity interval training) programs can both be designed to be low-impact, meaning participants get the exercise benefits of an intense workout without the stress and “jarring” to their joints and muscles.
Many low impact exercises are also excellent social activities. For example, social dancing and walking can easily be done with a friend or loved one. This social interaction increases the chances that you will keep up the activity10 and comes with an added social/emotional benefit.
Activities like cycling, rowing, canoeing, walking and cross-country skiing also lend themselves to spending time outdoors. For people who don’t enjoy being in a gym environment, these activities are a natural fit.
Who should consider taking part in low-impact exercise?
People who are new to exercise.
People who are recovering from an injury.
People who have long-standing problems with their hip, knee or ankle joints.
People who enjoy these forms of exercise!
At the end of the day, the idea is to be active in any way possible, aiming to meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guideline of “150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.”11
Zadpoor AA, Nikooyan AA. The relationship between lower extremity stress fractures and the ground reaction force: A systematic review. Clinical Biomechanics 2011; 26(1):23-28.
Kluitenberg B, Bredeweg SW, Zijlstra S, Zijlstra W & Buist I. Comparison of vertical ground reaction forces during overground and treadmill running: A validation study. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2012. Available at: http://bmcmusculoskeletdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2474-13-235 Accessed June 23, 2017.
Ortega DR, Rodriguez Bies EC & Berral de la Rosa FJ. Analysis of the vertical ground reaction forces and temporal factors in the landing phase of a countermovement jump. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 2010; 9:282-287.
Schwecherl L. 21 Unexpected low-impact exercises. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/18/low-impact-exercises_n_1434616.html Accessed June 22, 2017.
Healy GN, Wijndaele K, Dunstan DW, Shaw JE, Salmon J, Zimmet PZ, & Owen N. Objectively measured sedentary time, physical activity, and metabolic risk: The Australian diabetes, obesity and lifestyle study. Diabetes Care 2008; 31:369-371.
Hamilton MT, Healy GN, Dunstan DW, Zderic TW & Owen N. Too little exercise and too much sitting: Inactivity physiology and the need for new recommendations on sedentary behavior. Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports 2008; 2(4):292.
Blair SN, Morris JN. Healthy hearts-and the universal benefits of being physically active: Physical activity and health. Annals of Epidemiology 2009; 19(4): 253-256.
Kattenstroth JC, Kolankowska I, Kalisch T, Dinse HR. Superior sensory, motor, and cognitive performance in elderly individuals with multi-year dancing activities. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 2010; 2:1-9.
Wayne PM, Walsh JN, Taylor-Piliae RE, Wells RE, Papp KV, Donovan NJ, & Yeh GY. Effect of Tai Chi on cognitive performance in older adults: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 2014; 62(1):25-39.
Marcus BH, Forsyth LAH, Stone EJ, Dubbert PM, McKenzie TL, Dunn AL, Blair SN. Physical Activity Behaviour Change: Issues in Adoption and Maintenance. Health Psychology 2000; 19(1Supplemental): 32-41.
Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. Canadian physical activity guidelines for adults 18-64 years. Available at: http://csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP_PAGuidelines_adults_en.pdf Accessed June 22, 2017.