What is Low Impact Cardio for Pain Free, Low Impact Workouts?
YOU WATCH OUT on the impact your cardio-focused sweat session is having on your (hopefully positive) mood and energy levels. For some people, jogging is the highlight of the day.
But do you ever think about the impact your cardio routine is having on your joints? Unless you have arthritis, a pre-existing knee or hip injury, or other chronic injury, you probably don’t have one. But strength and conditioning specialists are warning street fighters about your long-term health and fitness goals. Low-impact cardio that puts less stress on your joints can be a lower-impact alternative to high-impact cardio that puts stress on your joints. This applies to all demographics, whether you are healthy or have a condition like arthritis.
Let’s break down exactly why low-impact cardio can be particularly beneficial to your fitness plan, and exactly how you can incorporate it into your workout to maximize both your cardiovascular capacity and your overall health and wellness.
What is low impact cardio
Broadly speaking, cardio — short for cardiovascular exercise, often referred to as aerobic exercise — is any type of exercise that increases your heart rate for a sustained period of time. Low-impact cardio is a category of exercise that gets your heart rate up in a way that is easy on the joints, explains Jake Harcoff, CSCS, head coach and owner of AIM sport. Unlike high-impact cardio, “low-impact cardio doesn’t put undue or harmful stress on the body,” he says.
As a general rule, “if your feet are in contact with the pedal or the floor all the time, the stress is low,” he says. When your feet are off the ground (or the pedal or platform) it is a high impact exercise. So while swimming, cycling, and rowing are considered low-impact activities, plyometric jumping, running, and jumping jacks are high-impact activities.
To be clear, low impact does not equal low intensity. Effect refers to how much stress the exercise puts on your joints, while intensity refers to how difficult an exercise is. “A high-intensity workout is a workout where you can’t talk, while a low-intensity workout is a workout where you can have a conversation,” says the exercise physiologist Peter McCallMS, CSCS, CPT, Host of All About Fitness Podcast. Despite common misconceptions, a workout can have both minor effects and high intensity, he says. Case in point: Assault Bike, SkiErg, or rowing machine sprints. No one will argue that these are low-effort activities.
The benefits of low impact cardio
Cardiovascular exercise – again, any exercise that increases your heart rate – is very good for your health.
“Your heart is a muscle,” explains McCall. “Anytime you increase your heart rate for a sustained period of time, you’re training your heart to pump nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood around your body more efficiently,” he says. Cardiovascular exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, improve blood cholesterol levels, and aid in blood sugar management Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Regular cardiovascular exercises can even Improvement in erectile function and increase libido. It was even connected to a longer lifespan, according to Harcoff. “Incorporating activities that increase your heart rate as you age can help you live longer and more independently,” he says.
Low-impact cardiovascular exercise, in particular, allows people with pre-existing joint injuries, arthritis, and chronic pain to reap all the benefits of cardiovascular exercise without putting their bodies at risk, says Harcoff. In fact, most people who are perfectly fit and fit (currently) can benefit from prioritizing low-impact cardio over high-impact cardio, he says.
At the end of the day, “the best form of cardio is one that you can do consistently and regularly while generating high output and minimal stress on the body,” says Harcoff. Because low-impact cardio puts minimal strain on your body, it’s optimal for anyone who wants to be healthy enough to exercise pain-free for a lifetime, he says.
The Best Types of Low Impact Cardio
If you used to think cardio was synonymous with running on the pavement (one of the most intense activities there is), you’ve probably wondered what cardio exercises exist alongside running. The answer: a lot.
There’s a reason street fighters often jump in at the deep end when healing an injury: actually swim is According to McCall, one of the best ways to get your heart rate up without putting additional stress on your joints. “The buoyancy of the water relieves your joints,” he explains.
Exactly how you fit the pool into your routine will depend on how comfortable and proficient you feel in the water. Ideally, your swim workout lasts up to 30 minutes, says McCall. “The current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, which equates to approximately 30 minutes per day.”
Fact: Strength training can get your heart rate up just as much as any so-called “traditional” cardiovascular exercise. “You can even get a low-impact cardiovascular workout during resistance training as long as you increase reps, decrease rest times, or increase speed,” says Harcoff.
Need proof? Try reducing rest periods during your strength training, waiting only 30 seconds to a minute between sets, or incorporating circuit training concepts into your weights. Just make sure you can recover properly (so don’t attempt this with heavy compound movements, for example) so you don’t compromise your performance or safety.
A machine worthy of its intimidating name, the Assault Bike (or Air Bike) effectively works every muscle in your body without getting your joints dirty. “The Assault Bike has handles, which means your arms and legs are working at the same time—which means your heart has to work hard to pump oxygen throughout your body,” says McCall.
There are a number of metrics you can focus on while riding, he says: distance, time, calories burned, RPM and watts, to name a few. “One day you might be trying to ride as far as you can in 20 minutes, while another day you’re sprinting 20 calories four times as fast as you can, resting between laps as needed.”
The beloved child of the indoor rowing machine and a Nordic standing workout, the SkiErg allows you to mimic the movement of skiing down the slopes right from the comfort (read: warmth) of your gym. Can’t imagine? You stand hip-width apart on the machine’s platform, then simultaneously fold your hips and pull down on the handles with your back and arms, McCall explains.
“The SkiErg is a great piece of equipment for interval sprinting,” he says. “Remember to sprint 100 meters every 2 minutes for 10 minutes or do a tabata on it.”
indoor rowing machine
It’s time to haul the Concept2 or Hydrow out of the corner of your gym and onto the main floor. “The rower works every muscle in your body from head to toe without putting undue stress on your knees,” says McCall.
His suggestion: Take a class at a rowing studio or CrossFit gym so you learn how to row, row, row with good form. Or ask a personal trainer for form tips. Then practice rowing at a steady pace for 2,000 meters. As you get better you can increase your distance and eventually reach half marathon distances at once.
Box step downs
Box step-downs are not the lowEuropean daylight saving time Impact exercises in the world… but they are minorah Impacts as rebounding box step-ups or rebounding box jump-overs. For this reason, if you don’t have injuries and want to stay that way, but are attending a boot camp or CrossFit class that programs box-jump moves, Harcoff recommends stepping back.
“You can lessen the impact of any jumping exercise by jumping onto something and stepping down instead of jumping up and then jumping back down to the ground,” he explains. “The effect of gravity is less when you’re jumping on something than when you’re jumping off it, so you want to remove the more impactful part of the movement.”
Running on grass or track
If you’re a runner, you’ve probably had a hard time getting through this article. No one is saying you have to stop street running right away – that would be unrealistic – but there are more joint-friendly options. “Running in and of itself is a highly effective form of cardio exercise, so finding less of a load variation can be a challenging task,” says Harcoff. Luckily it’s impossible. One way to reduce impact a bit is to switch to a softer tread, he says. You can shift your sprint workouts to grass, and track surfaces are slightly more forgiving than pavement.
While turf and track running aren’t ideal choices for anyone trying to incorporate lower-impact cardio into their routine, they can be decent substitutes for those who feel that being a “runner” is an integral part of their identity is.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/she) is a sex and fitness journalist dedicated to helping people feel their best in their bodies. In addition to Men’s Health, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist and more! In her spare time, Gabrielle trains in CrossFit, reviews indulgence products, hikes with her border collie, or records and co-hosts episodes of the podcast called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.
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