YOU PAY ATTENTION the impact of your cardio-focused sweat session on your (hopefully positive) mood and energy levels. For some people, jogging is the highlight of their day.
But have you ever thought about the impact of your cardio routine on your joints? If you don’t have arthritis, a pre-existing knee or hip injury, or other chronic injuries, you probably don’t. But strength and conditioning experts have a sidewalk rammer caveat when it comes to your long-term health and fitness goals. Low-impact cardio training, which doesn’t put as much strain on your joints, may be a safer joint-friendly alternative to high-impact cardio training, which strains your joints. This is true for all populations, whether you are healthy or have a disease like arthritis.
Let’s take a look at exactly why low-impact cardio can be especially beneficial to your fitness plan, and exactly how to incorporate it into your training to maximize both your cardiovascular capacity and your overall health and well-being.
What is Low Impact Cardio
Broadly speaking, cardio – short for cardiovascular exercise, also often called aerobic training – is any type of exercise that raises your heart rate for an extended period of time. Low-impact cardio is a category of exercise that raises your heart rate specifically in a joint-friendly way, says Jake Harcoff, CSCS, head trainer and owner of AIM Athletic. Unlike high-impact cardio, “low-impact cardio does not place undue or harmful stress on the body,” he says.
Generally, “if your feet stay in contact with the pedal or the ground all the time, the impact is low,” he says. During this time, if your feet leave the floor (or the pedal or the platform), this is a high impact exercise. So while swimming, biking, and rowing are considered low-impact activities, plyometric jumping, running, and jumping jacks are high-impact activities.
To be clear: low impact does not mean low intensity. Impact refers to the amount of stress exercise puts on your joints, while intensity refers to how difficult an exercise is. “High-intensity training is training you can’t talk about while you’re doing, while low-intensity training is training you can carry on a conversation about,” says the exercise physiologist. Pete McCallMS, CSCS, CPT, host of the All About Fitness Podcast. Despite common misconceptions, a workout can be both low impact and high intensity, he says. Example: sprints on an assault bike, SkiErg or rowing machine. No one will claim that these are low effort activities.
The Benefits of Low Impact Cardio
Cardiovascular training – again, any workout that elevates your heart rate – is very good for your health.
“Your heart is a muscle,” says McCall. “Each time you raise your heart rate for an extended period of time, you train your heart to move nutrient-rich, oxygen-rich blood more efficiently throughout your body,” he says. Cardiovascular training has also been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, improve blood cholesterol levels and aid in blood sugar management, according to the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention. Regular cardiovascular exercise can even improve erectile function and boost libido. He was even related longer life, 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 exercises, in particular, allow people with pre-existing joint damage, arthritis and chronic pain to experience all the benefits of cardiovascular training, without putting their bodies at risk, says Harcoff. In fact, most people who are (currently) perfectly healthy and able-bodied can benefit from prioritizing low-impact cardio over high-impact cardio, he says.
Ultimately, “the best form of cardio is one that you can do consistently and regularly, while delivering high output and minimal stress on the body,” says Harcoff. Because low-impact cardio places minimal stress on your body, it’s optimal for anyone who is healthy enough to move pain-free throughout life, he says.
The Best Types of Low-Impact Cardio
If you used to think cardio was synonymous with jogging on the sidewalk (one of the most high-impact activities out there), you’ve probably wondered exactly what cardio exercises there are besides running. The answer: A lot.
There’s a reason road warriors often dive into the depths when nursing a wound: to really swim is one of the best ways to get your heart rate up without putting extra strain on your joints, according to McCall. “The buoyancy of the water helps relieve your joints of any pressure,” he explains.
Exactly how you incorporate the pool into your routine will depend on your comfort and proficiency in the water. Ideally, your swim workouts will last up to 30 minutes, McCall says. “The stream Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, which is about 30 minutes a day.
Fact: Strength training can increase your heart rate as well 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, or increase speed,” says Harcoff.
Need proof? Try reducing rest periods during your strength workouts, waiting only 30 seconds to a minute between sets, or introducing circuit training concepts to your lifts. Just make sure you’re able to recover properly (so don’t try 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 dirtying your joints. “The Assault Bike has grips, which means your arms and legs work at the same time, which means your core has to work hard to pump oxygen throughout your body,” McCall explains.
There are a number of metrics you can focus on while riding, he says: distance, time, calories burned, RPMs and watts, to name a few. “One day you might try to ride as far as you can in 20 minutes, while another you might sprint 20 calories as fast as you can 4 times, resting as needed between rounds.”
The lovechild of indoor rowing and a standing Nordic workout, the SkiErg lets you mimic the motion of skiing on the slopes right from the comfort (read: warmth) of your gym. Can’t view it? You stand on the platform of the machine with your feet hip-width apart, then simultaneously flex your hips while pulling the handles down with your back and arms, McCall explains.
“The SkiErg is great equipment for interval sprints,” he says. “Consider sprinting 100 meters every 2 minutes for 10 minutes, or doing a Tabata on it.”
It’s time to pull the Concept2 or Hydrow out of the corner of your gym and bring it downstairs. “The rower works every muscle in your body from head to toe, without putting excessive pressure on your knees,” according to McCall.
Her suggestion: Take a class at a rowing studio or CrossFit gym to learn how to row, row, row your machine with good form. Or ask a personal trainer for fitness tips. Then practice rowing at a brisk pace for 2,000 meters. As you become more proficient, you can increase your distance, possibly going a half-marathon distance at a time.
Box lowers aren’t the lowestis impact exercise in the world… but they are weakuh impact than bounce box jumps or bounce box jumps. That’s why if you don’t have any injuries and want it to continue, but you’re attending a bootcamp or a CrossFit class that programs box jump moves, Harcoff recommends stepping out.
“You can reduce the impact of any jumping exercise by jumping onto something and going down rather than jumping up and then back to the ground,” he explains. “The effect of gravity is less when jumping on something than when jumping off it, so you want to remove the most impactful part of the movement.”
Run on grass or track
If you are a runner, you probably had a hard time getting through this article. No one is saying you have to stop running on the road right away – that would be unrealistic – but there are more joint-friendly options. “Running in itself is a high-impact form of cardio, so finding a lower impact variation can be a difficult task,” says Harcoff. Fortunately, this is impossible. One option that helps reduce the impact slightly is to switch to a softer running surface, he says. You can move your sprint workouts to turf, and track surfaces are a bit more forgiving than pavement.
While turf and track running aren’t the ideal choices for anyone trying to add low-impact cardio into their routine, they can be a decent swap for those who feel like being a ” rider” is an integral part of their identity.
Gabrielle Kassel (her) is a sex and fitness journalist committed to helping people feel their best about 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 can be found training CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. . Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.