fbpx

9 Low-Impact Cardio Workouts That Protect Your Joints And Burn Fat

Our personal trainer gives you her top low-impact workouts to keep you healthy and fit.

All our fitness and training resources are rigorously vetted by our expert team and adhere to our Exercise Advice Guidelines.

As a certified personal trainer, I work with many beginners new to the fitness world or those who have been inactive for a while due to joint pain.

While running and jumping can aggravate arthritis, many low-impact cardio exercises can still give you a great workout without as much joint pounding. 

Low-impact cardio workouts are also great for runners who want to reduce the risk of overuse injuries and work different muscle groups on recovery days.

In this guide, we will discuss low-impact cardio versus high-impact cardio and give you the best low-impact cardio workouts for your fitness routine.

Low Impact Cardio Workouts

What Is Low-Impact Cardio Exercise?

With low-impact cardio workouts, you are not landing with your body weight from an airborne position. 

Either one foot or both feet are in contact with the ground or the exercise machine you are using at all times, or you are in a seated position with your body weight supported. There is no jumping and landing.

For example, lunges and push-ups are low-impact exercises, as at least one foot or hand is always on the ground, whereas plyometrics like burpees, jumping jacks, and jump squats are high-impact exercises.

Similarly, sprinting is a high-impact cardio exercise because running has a flight phase, during which both feet are off the ground at the same time.

In contrast, riding a stationary bike or using a rowing machine are low-impact cardio exercises because they still get your heart pumping, but your body is supported by the machine, so you do not experience impact stress from landing.

Low Impact Cardio Workouts

Is Low Impact Exercise the Same as Low Intensity Exercise?

As a personal trainer, I find that many beginners confuse low-impact exercises with low-intensity exercises.

Low impact simply means that you are not subjecting your body to significantly more impact stress than your body weight. 

Low intensity means that your heart rate is not getting as high, so you are exercising at an easier effort.

You can do a low-impact workout that is still a high-intensity workout.

For example, you might hop on a stationary bike and follow a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout video where you are sprinting with intervals on the bike at a high resistance and then recovering at a low resistance throughout your aerobic workout.

During the high-intensity intervals, your heart rate might be upwards of 90% of your maximum heart rate or more, so it is still a vigorous, high-intensity exercise session.

That said, it is often easier to combine a high-intensity workout with a high-impact, full-body aerobic exercise because you will use more muscle groups and need to generate more force to launch your body weight off the ground, which naturally will get your heart pumping faster.

Low Impact Cardio Workouts

What Are the Benefits of Low-Impact Cardio Workouts?

Whether you are doing high-impact exercise or low-impact cardio workouts, alternative, aerobic exercise has many health benefits,1Lavie, C. J., Arena, R., Swift, D. L., Johannsen, N. M., Sui, X., Lee, D., Earnest, C. P., Church, T. S., O’Keefe, J. H., Milani, R. V., & Blair, S. N. (2015). Exercise and the Cardiovascular System. Circulation Research117(2), 207–219. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.117.305205 such as the following:

Benefits of Low-Impact Cardio

  • Strengthening the heart and lungs
  • Improving lung function and tidal volume and reducing symptoms of asthma
  • Reducing blood pressure 
  • Reducing the risk of lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease
  • Improving the elasticity and capacity of blood vessels
  • Increasing capillary density in muscle tissue
  • Burning calories and supporting weight loss
  • Reducing blood glucose levels and improving insulin sensitivity 
  • Reducing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels
  • Increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels
  • Strengthening the immune system
  • Improving sleep quality
  • Improving mood
  • Reducing anxiety

Is Low-Impact Exercise Better than High-Impact Exercise?

While high-impact cardio exercise such as running and jumping rope is a great way to increase your heart rate and get a tremendous high-intensity full-body workout, the risk of injury is relatively high.

The impact stress2Swain, D. P., Kelleran, K. J., Graves, M. S., & Morrison, S. (2016). Impact Forces of Walking and Running at the Same Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(4), 1042–1049. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001185 when you land from an airborne position with your body weight gets directly transferred through your lower body bones and joints.

This is why one of the benefits of high-impact exercises is that they can help increase bone density3Sl, W., Bk, W., Lj, W., At, H., Sa, H., & Br, B. (2018, February 1). High-Intensity Resistance and Impact Training Improves Bone Mineral Density and Physical Function in Postmenopausal Women With Osteopenia and Osteoporosis: The LIFTMOR Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research : The Official Journal of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28975661/ because your bones are subjected to impact stresses that trigger the mineralization process.

Over time, your bones adapt to become stronger.

However, the obvious drawback is that there is a higher risk of injuries such as stress fractures, knee pain, and other joint problems.

The benefits of low-impact cardio exercise are that they can still potentially provide a full-body workout to increase your heart rate, improve cardiovascular health and fitness, and burn calories4Brown, G. A., Cook, C. M., Krueger, R. D., & Heelan, K. A. (2010). Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. an Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(6), 1643–1649. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181cb2854 to support weight loss, while decreasing the risk of injury relative to high-impact exercises.

Low Impact Cardio Workouts

What Are the Best Low-Impact Cardio Workouts?

Here are some simple low-impact cardio workouts you can do:

#1: Swimming

Swimming is a great full-body cardio workout that improves heart health while strengthening the upper body, lower body, and core muscles. 

Swimming is great for beginners, those with joint pain, or those who are overweight and trying to lose weight. The buoyancy of the water can alleviate discomfort, yet swimming workouts can still burn calories and improve full-body strength.

Here is a swimming workout for beginners or those who are trying to build up their fitness level:

  1. Warm up with two laps of easy swimming.
  2. Swim as fast as possible to the other end of the pool (25 yards).
  3. Rest for 30 seconds.
  4. Swim back another 25 yards as hard as possible. During the fast swims, try to raise your heart rate to at least 85% of your maximum heart rate.
  5. Rest for 30 seconds.
  6. Cool down with two full laps of easy swimming to bring your heart rate back down.

Build up to 10×25 m hard and then increase to a full lap (50m) for each high-intensity interval.

#2: Stair Climbing

Stair climbing is a fantastic low-impact cardio workout.

Climbing stairs uses many of the same muscles as running, such as your glutes, hamstrings, and quads, but there is much less pounding on your legs.

Here is a sample high-intensity interval training workout on a stair climber machine.:

  1. Do a five-minute warm-up to increase your heart rate and blood flow.
  2. Do 10×45 seconds hard, 45 seconds easy. Try to get your heart rate up to 85 to 90% of your maximum heart rate during the high-intensity intervals.
  3. Cool down with five minutes of easy stair climbing.
Low Impact Cardio Workouts

#3: Elliptical Machine

The elliptical machine is one of the most popular low-impact cardio exercises.

You can do a steady-state aerobic workout on the elliptical machine.

Try to get your heart rate up to 70-75% of your maximum heart rate for 20-60 minutes, depending on your fitness level.

Or, you can do high-intensity intervals.

You can adjust the resistance and incline to vary your workouts and challenge your body as your fitness improves. 

Use elliptical machines with movable arms to raise your heart rate into the aerobic zone and get a full-body workout.

#4: Cross-Country Skiing

Also referred to as Nordic skiing, cross-country skiing is a low-impact, full-body workout since you also rely heavily on your upper body to propel you forward with your ski poles. 

#5: Pilates

Although not necessarily a cardio workout, Pilates can be a good form of low-impact exercise for improving body strength, especially in the core muscles.

Low Impact Cardio Workouts

#6: Circuit Training

Strength training exercises such as squats and lunges are primarily intended to help build muscle or improve muscular strength.

However, these low-impact exercises can also provide an aerobic workout if performed back-to-back with lower weights and higher reps and without rest between each exercise.

This is called circuit training because you are quickly moving from one exercise to the next in a circuit.

Here is a sample low-impact lower-body strength training workout using no equipment:

  1. Warm up with 5 minutes of cardio. Complete 2-5 rounds of the following, depending on your fitness level:
  2. 60 seconds of bodyweight squats
  3. 60 seconds of alternating forward lunges 
  4. 60 seconds of alternating reverse lunges
  5. 60 seconds of step-ups
  6. 60 seconds of alternating side lunges 

Don’t stop between reps or between exercises.

Cool down with core exercises or walking.

#7: Cycling

Cycling can take on many forms, from mountain biking and outdoor cycling to spinning and stationary bike workouts indoors.  

It strengthens your heart, lungs, and entire lower body. You can easily vary your low-impact cardio workout on the bike by changing the resistance and cadence to keep your fitness progressing. 

Low Impact Cardio Workouts

#8: Aqua Jogging

Deep water running or aqua jogging is one of the top go-to non-impact cross-training activities for injured runners. 

But, you don’t have to be a runner to take advantage of this non-impact aerobic exercise.

I recommend wearing a flotation belt because it helps you keep proper form. Be sure to keep your torso upright and core muscles engaged, and keep those legs moving. 

Your muscles have to work harder against the resistance of the water, which helps you get your heart rate up.

#9: Rowing Machine

I’ve become a big fan of the rowing machine in my own workout routine.

Focus on pressing with your legs rather than pulling with your arms. 

Here is a sample rowing machine HIIT workout:

  1. Warm up with 5 minutes of easy rowing.
  2. Do 5×2 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy. During the high-intensity intervals, try to raise your heart rate to 85 to 90% of your maximum heart rate.
  3. Cool down with five minutes of easy rowing.

What type of exercise do you want to try today?

For more cross-training inspiration check out our ultimate cross-training guide:

References

  • 1
    Lavie, C. J., Arena, R., Swift, D. L., Johannsen, N. M., Sui, X., Lee, D., Earnest, C. P., Church, T. S., O’Keefe, J. H., Milani, R. V., & Blair, S. N. (2015). Exercise and the Cardiovascular System. Circulation Research117(2), 207–219. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.117.305205
  • 2
    Swain, D. P., Kelleran, K. J., Graves, M. S., & Morrison, S. (2016). Impact Forces of Walking and Running at the Same Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(4), 1042–1049. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001185
  • 3
    Sl, W., Bk, W., Lj, W., At, H., Sa, H., & Br, B. (2018, February 1). High-Intensity Resistance and Impact Training Improves Bone Mineral Density and Physical Function in Postmenopausal Women With Osteopenia and Osteoporosis: The LIFTMOR Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research : The Official Journal of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28975661/
  • 4
    Brown, G. A., Cook, C. M., Krueger, R. D., & Heelan, K. A. (2010). Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. an Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(6), 1643–1649. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181cb2854
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.