High-Impact Vs. Low-Impact Exercise: Which Is Best For You?

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One of the challenges for beginners when it comes to really feeling like they have a handle on what workouts to do and how to do them is simply the fact that there are a lot of terms to understand about exercise.

What does high-intensity exercise mean? What is low-intensity exercise? Should you use heart rate or rate of perceived effort to determine workout intensity?

Perhaps even more confusing, what is high-impact exercise and what is low-impact exercise? How do you determine what qualifies as high- vs. low-impact exercise?

Furthermore, is it better to do high-impact cardio or low-impact aerobic workouts?

In this guide, we will focus on this latter set of questions, tackling the topic of high-impact vs. low-impact exercise and covering the need-to-know information for beginners to help you plan and execute the best workouts for your goals.

We will cover: 

  • What Is High-Impact Exercise?
  • What Is Low-Impact Exercise?
  • Examples of High-Impact Exercise vs. Low-Impact Exercise
  • Pros and Cons of High-Impact vs. Low-Impact Exercise

Let’s get started! 

People jump roping.

What Is High-Impact Exercise?

High-impact exercise involves performing movements or physical activities that involve jumping up or being airborne and then landing, which in turn creates an impact as your foot makes contact with the ground. 

To be considered high-impact exercise, your feet must both leave and then come back into contact with the ground.

So, for example, running is a high-impact cardio exercise, whereas walking is a low-impact aerobic exercise.

During the running gait cycle, there is a “flight“ or “float“ phase where both feet are simultaneously off the ground, and the body is airborne.

Therefore, when you land, your body is descending from a height above the ground, so you make ground contact with higher impact forces.

In contrast, during the walking gait cycle, one foot is always in the stance phase (in contact with the ground) while the other is in the swing phase off the ground. 

Because there is always ground contact when you walk, the body isn’t dropping down to land with a lot of force. Rather, you are just placing the limb back down for weight bearing instead of “falling” into the ground.

People hiking, an example of low-impact exercise.

For this reason, when comparing walking and running, studies show that the vertical ground reaction force is about 1-1.5 times your body weight when you walk and 2-2.9 times your body weight when you run, meaning that running subjects your feet and legs to twice as much force per step.

Furthermore, the average running cadence (steps per minute) is about 170-180 steps per minute, whereas the average walking cadence, or step rate, is between 100-130 steps per minute.

Therefore, you not only land with twice as much force during high-impact exercise like running, but you also take more steps per minute, further magnifying the difference in the total impact stress per minute compared to low-impact exercise like walking.

Another study confirmed these findings. The researchers compared the impact forces of running versus incline walking at the same intensity. 

Despite being the same intensity, the peak vertical ground reaction forces during running were 49% higher per step than during incline walking. 

Additionally, the cadence, or frequency of impact in terms of steps per minute, was 32% higher during running than walking. As a result, the product of peak vertical ground reaction force and step rate resulted in 97% greater impact forces while running compared to walking at the same intensity.

People cycling.

What Is Low-Impact Exercise?

Low-impact exercise involves movements or physical activities that do not include forceful landing or shock absorption through your joints. 

During low-impact exercise, at least one foot is always in contact with the ground, so there is no “flight“ phase or landing from an airborne position.

Low-impact exercise eliminates the jarring and slamming of the joints.

Walking and cycling are examples of low-impact exercise.

It’s important to note that just because exercise is low impact, it does not necessarily mean it is low intensity. 

It is possible to elevate your heart rate doing low-impact cardio exercise just as high as it could get doing high-impact exercise.

The very nature of high-impact exercise certainly lends itself more easily to get your heart rate into the upper zones because propelling yourself into the airborne position that’s required for the activity to qualify as “high-impact exercise” takes a lot of muscle force and exertion.

However, this is not to say you can’t do a vigorous low-impact workout. For example, brisk incline walking up a steep gradient can elevate your heart rate to nearly your maximum heart rate, as can an all-out spinning workout with HIIT intervals on an indoor cycle.

A person running up stairs.

Examples of High-Impact Exercise vs. Low-Impact Exercise

Although the classic example of high-impact cardio exercise is running and walking serves as the go-to example of low-impact aerobic exercise, there are plenty of other types of high-impact and low-impact exercise, respectively.

Additional examples of low-impact exercises and high-impact exercises can be seen in the table below:

High-Impact ExercisesLow-Impact Exercises
Jump RopingRowing
Jumping JacksElliptical Machine
PlyometricsStair Climbing
Jump SquatsHiking
GymnasticsCross-Country Skiing
ReboundingStep Aerobics
RacquetballSwimming (no impact)
A person serving a tennis ball.

Pros and Cons of High-Impact vs. Low-Impact Exercise

So, is it better to do high-impact exercise or low-impact exercise?

Before we weigh high-impact vs. low-impact exercise, let’s discuss the benefits of high-impact exercise as well as the risks, and then the pros and cons of low-impact exercise.

Benefits Of High-Impact Exercise

There are inherent benefits to performing any type of physical activity, regardless of whether it’s high-impact aerobic exercise or low-impact cardio exercise.

The benefits of high-impact exercise include the following:

  • Increasing power and speed.
  • Burning calories efficiently.
  • Improving neuromuscular coordination and reaction time.
People in a Zumba class.

Drawbacks or Risks Of High-Impact Exercise

The primary risk of high-impact physical activity is that the impact stress inherently increases the risk of injuries, particularly stress fractures, other bone injuries, and joint pain and injuries.

For this reason, high-impact exercise may not be appropriate for people with osteoporosis or low bone density, osteoarthritis, and acute or chronic joint injuries.

The jarring nature of high-impact exercise can also be difficult for people with stress incontinence and is often difficult or contraindicated during later stages of pregnancy, especially if there is excessive laxity in the ligaments, pelvic pain, pubic symphysis dysfunction, or round ligament stretching or pain.

Benefits Of Low-Impact Exercise

There are also numerous benefits of low-impact exercise, including the following:

  • Decreasing recovery time after workouts. compared to high-impact exercise, allowing you to do a higher training volume safely and recover faster.
  • Easier and more approachable for beginners, less fit individuals, the elderly, and those who are overweight, compared to high-impact exercise.
  • Burning calories.
  • Increasing heart rate and strengthening the heart and lungs.
  • Providing lots of variety of options and modalities of exercise.
  • Easier to accommodate a range of abilities, so low-impact exercise is ideal for group fitness.
A person rowing on the water.

Drawbacks Of Low-Impact Exercise

The primary downside of low-impact exercise is that it can be harder to elevate your heart rate compared to high-impact exercise because you may be non-weight bearing (as is the case when cycling or swimming), and since you aren’t launching the body and then landing, the muscle forces can be less.

Therefore, it can be harder to burn as many calories and get your heart rate as high as it might get during a high-impact workout.

However, as mentioned, it’s certainly possible to do a high-intensity, low-impact workout; it just takes more conscious effort to boost the intensity.

Additionally, most low-impact exercise does not increase bone density as much as high-impact exercise, so low-impact workouts are not as effective at preventing osteoporosis.

For most people, a well-rounded workout plan with both high-impact exercises and low-impact workouts is the best way to reap the unique benefits of both types of workouts while helping mitigate the risk of injuries from doing too much high-impact exercise.

However, if you have a history of injuries, an active injury, or bone or joint conditions, you should speak with your doctor or physical therapist before engaging in high-impact cardio workouts. 

Low-impact exercise is often a safer alternative that can still give you a great workout and boost your fitness.

Looking for some low-impact ideas? Check out our guide here!

A person doing gymnastics.
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.

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