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Low-Impact vs. High-Impact Exercises: Which Is Right for You

By , SparkPeople Blogger
People often ask me whether certain workouts are "high impact" or "low impact," and in answering them, I have discovered is that there is a lot of confusion among exercisers about what these terms really mean. Yes, they deal somewhat with overall intensity and calorie burn, and are important for fitness tracking, but there's more to it than that. Low- and high-impact exercises offer different benefits and pose different risks. So here are the basics you need to know about the highs and lows of these different forms of exercise.

Fitness Defined: Low-Impact and High-Impact Exercises (And Which is Right for You)

Low-Impact Exercises
Simply stated, a workout is low-impact if at least one of your feet remains in contact with the ground at all times. Walking, hiking, rollerblading and most step aerobics and cardio dance workouts are low-impact. Some people consider exercises such as water aerobics, swimming, cycling and the elliptical machine to be low impact as well, but you may also see these described as "no impact" since both feet stay on the ground at all times and/or your body is supported during movement (by water or a machine). Seated workouts, arm ergometers, and gentler mat-based workouts such as Pilates and yoga may also be considered low or no-impact since they do not involve excessive pounding or force on the lower body joints, but in general both low- and high-impact workouts refer to cardio (not strength training or toning).

Who Should Go Low? Low-impact exercises are most appropriate for beginners, as well as people with arthritis or osteoporosis, older adults, individuals who are obese, pregnant women, and people with bone, joint, connective tissue injuries. That's because low-impact exercise tend to be less jarring on the body and joints, and less intense overall (more on that below). According to the American Council on Exercise, keeping at least one foot on the ground at all times also reduces your risk of musculoskeletal injury.

It's perfectly fine for people without the concerns listed above to perform low-impact exercises, but fitter individuals may have to work harder to reach their target heart rate zone when choosing low-impact exercises.

High-Impact Exercises
In these workouts, both feet leave the ground at the same time, as is the case during running, hopping, jumping rope, skipping, jumping jacks, plyometrics, some step aerobics (if you jump on or off the step or run around the room), and some cardio dancing that involves leaping.

Who Should Aim High? High-impact exercises tend to be more intense overall and therefore burn more calories. They may even strengthen bones better than lower impact options, but any impact can help with that, even if it's light. These types of exercises should be reserved for people who already have a baseline of fitness and are at low risk for joint problems because they pose a higher risk for injury, especially to the ankle, knee and hip joints as well as the spine. How?

If you remember high school science class, Newton's third law (the law of impact and reaction forces) explains why. For every action (force applied by one body to a second), there is an equal and opposite reaction (the second applies an equal force on the first but in the opposite direction). Whew! What that means as that your body must absorb the impact forces during high-impact moves. The force on your body while running (high impact) can be more than twice that of walking (low impact). A 150-pound person who runs will land on one foot with about 300 foot pounds of pressure on the ankle, knee and hip joints. This can result in overuse and stress injuries, especially in larger people and at fast speeds. There is no rule that you must progress to high-impact exercises as you get fitter, although many people choose to do so for an increased challenge or greater variety. Keep in mind that many programs combine high and low impact exercises into a single workout and that sometimes, the line isn't as clear. "Rebounding," or jumping on a mini trampoline, involves jumping (high impact) but reduces the impact thanks to the give of the surface, for example.

My Choice
Since I already have a baseline of fitness and am not at risk for joint problems, higher impact exercises are appropriate for me intensity-wise, but I try to balance the two. To counter the high impact of running, which I do just three days a week, I choose low-impact workouts like Spinning and walking on the other days. This way, I'm not constantly stressing my joints and body with high impact moves that could result in injury over time. As you may have figured out, balancing the risk and benefits of high and low impact exercises is another great reason to cross train.

Now you know how to classify the various workouts, classes and DVDs you do, you can track them appropriately on your Fitness Tracker as either low-impact or high-impact aerobics. I hope you are also thinking about which types of exercises are most appropriate for your fitness level and body, too.

Do you choose high impact or low impact exercises most often? Will this information change your workout plan?

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low for now- hoping for high as I get fitter... Report
Both I like to mix it up and not let my body get use to the samething over and over... Report
I stick to mostly low-impact stuff. My knees & shins can only handle high-impact exercise a little at a time Report
I usually do both, although I never realized the difference before until I read this article. Thanks for the info! Report
Low-impact--but fast--walking for me, since I injured my shoulder after several falls while running on city sidewalks. I mix in just a bit of running to increase the intensity. Report
I do low impact due to the stress on everythingbelow my waist! Report
Thanks for posting this article! As I am changing my life learning and *understanding* all of the "things" I thought I already knew is really helpful. Report
My family has bad joints and though I don't technically have arthritis I still do low impact workouts. Report
I needed this article....thanks!
Low impact for me :o) Report
Great article...thanks for clearing up the confusion over low vs high impact exercise. I had always thought that high impact only meant higher speed and intensity, and was surprised to learn that it means both feet leave the ground at the same time. All this time I thought I had been doing some high impact exercise, but it truly wasn't.
Now I'll be sure to try adding some high impact exercise to my regular routine. Report
I'm well versed in what I am capable of and not capable of in terms of specific exercises. I was always able to do weights both upper and lower, am now banned from doing lower weights. I've always done lower impact workouts because of the damage higher impact does on my joints and my back. I had a major back injury when I was in my teens along with development of arthritis in my joints. Add in that I used to be a nurse and my knees took on all the lifting, it means that I have to be kind to my body now or simply not walk later down the road. The article hasn't changed this or heightened my awareness regarding all this. If I could, I would be working out in water but its not an option - no pool. It's a good basic article for those new to all this area. Report
I'm afraid I'm sort of stuck with low impact because I have plates and screws holding one leg together and I have an undifferentiated autoimmune disease that attacks the joints when it flares up. Thank goodness it's been in remission for almost six years, but I don't torture the joints any more than absolutely necessary for fear of triggering another bout with it.

I used to think I could work toward the day when I could run again, but I'm afraid those days are over. Just too much jarring on the plates and screws.

When I walk I move pretty darned fast, though, so it's almost as effective as running. Report
Low impact because of my osteoarthritis... and I was shocked to discover after several retests that my resting pulse is 48! Report
Low impact- water aerobics, stairs, walking & sitting exercises with richard simmons :) Report
I mostly do low impact with some high impact. But as I progress, I hope to incorporate more high impact in my workouts. Report
I do a combination of low and high impact exercise. I want to strengthen my bones, but I also want to relax sometimes. Report
I do the low impact because I do not want to damage my joints. Report
I was just wondering about what the difference was as I tracked the DVD I did this morning. Good timing!

I mostly do low impact because my endurance isn't very high. But I bought a jump rope and I plan to start using it outside as the weather improves. Report
I'm definitely a low impact exerciser. Report
I do both! Always good to mix it up! Report
I choose low-impact exercises most often, but sometimes incorporate high-impact ones. I'm glad to see I'm still doing something good for me and am looking forward to being fit enough to do more high-impact exercises. Report
I usually stick to low impact. Even 1 day of running (the only high impact I do) a week is enough to make my knees hurt for the rest of the week. Report
I do low impact exercises - doctor's orders. He doesn't want me to use the treadmill at all. The seated elliptical is my best friend! Report
I mix it up between low impact aerobics, walk/jogging, and skating. As I get more fit, I may return to more high impact.

Great explanation! Report
Because of my physical problems, I must do ULTRA low impact. The main thing for me is to exercise in some way. I focus on moving all parts of my body, making sure that I keep doing full range movements. Report
Great post Nicole! Thanks.
Ten years ago I could barely walk up steps because my knees were so bad. Slid down the steps on my butt (except in public) to reduce the pain.
Starting riding a bike as it is low impact and would be easier on my knees.
Now I run two or three times per week, ride bike two or three times, take a Boot Camp class (very tough class), karate, and aerobics/exercise on tape a couple of times each week.
I have NO trouble with my knees or anything else.
Started with low impact, gained strength, then moved to running, jumping, etc.
Avoided knee surgery and have more energy than almost anyone.....

I go low impact because I have rheumatoid arthritis and I'm not sure how my joints would handle high impact.

Jem Report
I do low impact but had a high level of resistance or incline. After reading this article, I'm thinking maybe I should do a little more high impact, but as someone else has said, I'm really a klutz and don't want to injure myself or anyone else! Report
"Low" all the way for me! I don't need high, and I'm a clutz, so keeping one foot (at least) on the earth at all times just makes sense. Report
I also never thought of cycling as being low impact. I guess it is because my knees are so bad, that even peddling a bike makes them grind and ache. I think I will try it though; I am sure once my thigh muscles get stronger they will help my knees work better. Report
Never knew that spinning was considered low impact when my heart rate jumps so high. Have been on a plateau & considering running which I tried a few times for just 10 minutes. I hated it! Do runners love it or do they do it because are willing to make the sacrifice for the feeling of being fit? Report
It is important to remember, however, that "low impact" does not have to mean "low intensity". Larger movements (i.e. reaching higher with arms, lifting knees higher) can significantly raise the intensity of your workout without adding any impact. Also, adding intervals of squats or knee lifts and can rev up your calorie burn too. Report
i have trouble believing water aerobics is low impact, at least not the workout my instructors give at the gym. we pretty much do kick-boxing boot camp in the water. try running back and forth across the pool for five minutes while holding water-filled weights over your head! Report
It is great to know the difference and evening knowing that if one foot is on the ground was low impact. I still learned something new from this article about who should and who should not do the higher impact stuff. Report
When it comes to step, I'm hooked on high impact. Any other exercise I tend to go for low impact, but not low intensity. I race walk pretty fast! Report
I wouldn't have imagined that step or any kind of aerobics would be considered low-impact. By this definition, the only high impact I do is running. My kickboxing and strength-training workouts would be considered low impact it seems. Report
In spite of very severe arthritis, I do both types of exercise, because low impact doesn't get my heart rate up high enough. I just like a variety of exercises and do as many different things as I can so my body doesn't get used to any one thing. I have 13 DVD's to choose from. I also use an elliptical. Report
I like interval training. But, when I'm thinner, I do more of the high impact. I tend to be ummmm..."top heavy" and that's the 1st place I gain weight, so high impact can be diffecult! And finding a good sports bra is diffecult! Report
I mix it up. I have Achilles tendonitis, so too much high impact is very painful, but I have found that if I "run" with my knees instead of my ankles, I can do it (3-4 times per week- I am currently on W7 of the C25K)). I do a lot of stretching and massages to counteract it. Pilates is another favorite.
I find I can do pretty much anything I want to do as long as I adapt the exercise to minimize tendon and bursa inflamation and do not use my weight as an excuse. Report
Thank you for the clarification. Since I have ankle issues I will continue to seek out low impact exercises. I'd love to see a low impact kickboxing routine. Report
I do low impact - have achilles tendonitis and even low impact flares it up. Report
I'm afraid I'm "married" to low impact. I suffered a horrendous break in my tibia 2 years ago and now have post-traumatic arthritis in that knee and ankle and it hurts to even try running, jumping jacks or jumping rope! I can do some very mild jogging, but even that can result in a night of pain if I over do it! But, I simply increase my intensity in my low impact workouts to burn calories and raise my HR! It makes me sad that I can't do a jumping jack, but I make up for it in DVDs by sitting on my stability ball and doing the jumping jack motions with my legs and arms and it still makes me sweat, but with no danger to my leg! Report
I do both Report
low impact is right for me due to multiple stomach hernias. Slow but steady is the way I must go.... Report
I do low impact Turbo Jam while working up to higher impact. For example, I just got over a cold where I wasn't exercising, so now I'm doing a 30 minute workout low impact for the next week or so before increasing it to higher impact or a longer workout. Report
I do low impact. I just feels like I am doing high impact because I try to keep the intensity level up. Report
Thank you so much for this blog entry. As a person with knee problems (2 surgeries to date) I have struggled to define low and high impact. You cannot always rely on marketting of equipment to tell you. I try to stick to the activities that do not hurt the knee...walking, swimming, etc. I do find it a challenge sometimes to get my heart rate up where it needs to be but for me at least, it is more important to protect the knee rather than ramp up the impact. So thanks for this clarification. Report
I do low impact now. I don't think I have gone for a run in about 30 years. Report
Interesting article, good to have the knowledge. I do mostly low impact because I'm so out of shape but am aspiring to run a 5K. Report
i do low impact, i have a very tender ankle. Have torn many things before and i have track in my feet as well.
So low impact for me :) Report
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