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What's the Difference Between Low- and High-Impact Exercise?

What kind of exercise works best? Here are the facts behind high- and low-impact exercise.

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Sure, the wrong kind of food can be unhealthy, but what about the wrong kind of exercise? While there are no standard guidelines for what determines if an exercise is low- or high-impact, understanding the difference between the two can make all the difference in using them correctly to strengthen the body.

Bam Between Bones — The Need-to-Know

Photo by Justin Singh

The words “high-impact” may conjure up images of football players colliding head-on or soccer players taking an elbow to the face. But high-impact exercise also encompasses sports with less person-on-person contact, like the jolting motions involved in running (which can cause an impact of 2.5 times the runner’s body weight with each step) and gymnastics [1]. While studies suggest the right amount of high-impact exercise can increase bone density, other research indicates too much can place excessive strain on the body and may even wear down muscles over time, possibly leading to crippling effects years later [1] [2].

On the less-intense side, low-impact exercise (think swimming, yoga, and using the elliptical, movements that involve less direct force on the body) is done in a softer gear, placing less stress on the body and reducing risk of injury [1]. [3]. But (shocker) just like too much high-impact is bad, too much low-impact exercise may not give healthy bones the stimulus they need [4]. For people who have joint damage or are recovering from injury, lower intensity exercise can be a great alternative means to stay healthy and active [3]. And it's not  just for sissies— even football players use low impact exercises like yoga for rehabilitation and to increase flexibility.

The Real Impact — Your Action Plan

So what’s best way to balance workouts for the biggest impact overall? While a lot of it can depend on individual needs, cross-training is often a great solution, alternating both low- and high-impact exercises instead of strictly focusing on one discipline.

The best way to get into cross-training is to start by alternating each workout day with high- and low-impact exercises. Look into gradually easing a few exercises from the other side into a workout week, depending on what the usual training plan looks like. But note those who aren't used to a regular workout routine or who have specific health problems should usually check with a doctor before starting a new regimen. One thing to keep in mind is that cross training will not prevent injuries (there's no real guaranteed way to prevent them, really), but it can decrease the risk of overuse injuries.

Have fun creating a middle ground using the best of both workout worlds! Instead of just yoga, how about yoga with weights?  Maybe do some Zumba instead of hitting the treadmill? Or try a hand at jiu jitsu instead of swimming?

What kind of high- and low-impact exercises do you combine to create the perfect workout?

  • High-impact exercise typically involves more direct force on the body, including everything from contact sports like footbal, to running and gymnastics
  • Too much high-impact exercise may place excessive strain on the body and may even wear down muscles over time, possibly leading to repetitive stress injuries.
  • Low-impact exercise (think swimming, yoga, and using the elliptical, movements that involve less direct force on the body) is done in a softer gear, placing less stress on the body and potentially reducing the risk of injury.
  • Incorporating both high- and low-impact exercises is a great way to get a more rounded workout.
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Works Cited +

  1. Impact and overuse injuries in runners Hreljac, A. Kinesiology and Health Science Department, California State University, Sacramento, Sacramento, CA. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 2004 May;36(5):845-9.
  2. High-impact exercise promotes bone gain in well-trained female athletes.Taaffe, D.R., Robinson, T.L., Snow, C.M., et al. Musculoskeletal Research Laboratory, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Palo Alto, CA. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 1997 Feb;12(2):255-60.
  3. Effects of low-impact, moderate-intensity exercise training with and without wrist weights on functional capacities and mood states in older adults. Engels, H.J., Drouin, J., Zhu, W., et al. Division of HPR, Exercise Science, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI. Gerontology, 1998;44(4):239-44.
  4. Total and regional bone density in male runners, cyclists, and controls. Rector, R.S., Rogers, R., Ruebel, M., et al. The Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, 2008 Feb;57(2):226-32.