Every once in a while you should give your body a break from pounding the pavement, whether you're running, dancing, or playing sports. But before you take this as a sign to sink even deeper into the sofa, try a low-impact workout. They're easier on your body—your joints will thank you—and they can be a great way to get in a heart-pumping workout without worrying too much about injuries. Effects of low-impact, moderate-intensity exercise training with and without wrist weights on functional capacities and mood states in older adults. Engels HJ, Drouin J, Zhu W. Gerontology, 1998, Sep.;44(4):0304-324X.
Impact and overuse injuries in runners. Hreljac A. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2004, Sep.;36(5):0195-9131.
Physical activity at leisure and risk of osteoarthritis. Lane NE. Annals of the rheumatic diseases, 1996, Dec.;55(9):0003-4967.
Most trainers define low-impact as any exercise where one foot stays on the ground at all times. But rather than doing single-leg dead lifts until keeling over, we rounded up 21 low- (or no!) impact exercises worth trying:
Walking is a stress-free way to get moving. If taking a lesiurely stroll is too easy, there are plenty of ways to add intensity: Hit the hills or add weights (try dumbbells or ankle weights) to really get that heart rate up. Intensity and energy cost of weighted walking vs. running for men and women. Miller JF, Stamford BA. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 1987, Jul.;62(4):8750-7587.
Feel winded every time you go up a set of stairs? It's time to get acquinated with the StairMaster. No gym nearby? No problem. Any old stairs will work—just follow this workout.
4. Strength training
We already have a list of 19 reasons to strength train, and here's one more: Most strength training exercises are low impact, and they still work up a sweat. Muscle Forces or Gravity: What Predominates Mechanical Loading on Bone? Kohrt, W.M., Barry, D.W., et al. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2011 Feb 10. (Keep in mind monster box jumps wearing a weighted vest don't exactly qualify.)
We've loved biking ever since we finally took off our training wheels. It just so happens to be a great way to fit in some exercise without putting a strain on your joints. And you don't even need to sign up for an indoor cycling class to see results. Try this 30-minute at-home cycling workout.
Here's a super-easy way to get in some cardio while also pretending that you're soaking up some sun on a boat. Of course, the florescent lights in the gym eventually snap you back to reality. But at least you'll be working out your arms, back, legs, and core. (Give this 30-minute rowing workout a go.) Score!
Want to actually hit the water? Grab a kayak and jump in (or maybe don't jump in, if you want to stay dry)! Kayaking works your arms and core (no crunches necessary), and you can see some stellar sights along the way.
8. Tai Chi
This gentle, fluid movement improves flexibility and may even ward off headaches. A randomized controlled trial of tai chi for tension headaches. Abbott RB, Hui KK, Hays RD. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2006, Aug.;4(1):1741-427X. (Whether that includes hangover headaches is unclear.)
Looking to upgrade your walks? Take a hike! To keep things low impact, start with low-grade terrain. Save climbing Everest for later.
10. Rock climbing
Climbing requires slow, controlled movements, which means your muscles get a serious workout without the added strain. Functional ankle control of rock climbers. Schweizer A, Bircher HP, Kaelin X. British journal of sports medicine, 2005, Jul.;39(7):1473-0480.
The ancient practice will have you feeling the burn without feeling the pain. So add some downward dogs and half moons to your fitness routine. Or try aerial yoga to really take your practice to new heights.
You aren't going to get a strong core by doing crunches all day long. Try Pilates instead—plus, you'll seriously improve your flexibility without putting too much strain on your joints.
TRX gets its name because it lets users do total-body resistance exercises using a strap suspension system (say that three times fast). The workout is easy on your joints but challenging for the rest of your body. Once you learn the ropes, see if you can master these 45 TRX exercises.
Skip the inner tubes and start doing laps. Swimming is a great low-impact exercise with a boatload of benefits, from strengthening your shoulders to improving lung function. Effects of weight bearing and non-weight bearing exercises on bone properties using calcaneal quantitative ultrasound. Yung PS, Lai YM, Tung PY. British journal of sports medicine, 2005, Aug.;39(8):1473-0480.
15. Water aerobics
For a different kind of walk in the park, strap on a pair of snowshoes. Walking on snow—like walking on sand—is more of a workout than walking on pavement. And it's still tame on your body. The energy expenditure of snowshoeing in packed vs. unpacked snow at low-level walking speeds. Connolly DA. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 2003, Mar.;16(4):1064-8011.
17. Step aerobics
For a good cardio workout without all the pounding, science suggests signing up for a step aerobic class. Osteogenic index of step exercise depending on choreographic movements, session duration, and stepping rate. Santos-Rocha, R.A., Oliverira, C.S., Veloso, A.P. Sports Sciences School of Rio Maior, Portugal. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006 Oct;40(10):860-6; discussion 866. Epub 2006 Aug 18. Researchers found an hour of step aerobics gives you the same workout as a mid-distance run.
18. Ballroom dancing
Take a tip from Dancing With the Stars. Not only is dancing super sexy, it’s often gentle on the body. The metabolic cost of two ranges of arm position height with and without hand weights during low impact aerobic dance. Carroll MW, Otto RM, Wygand J. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 1992, Mar.;62(4):0270-1367. So go grab a partner and give those dips, twists, and twirls a try.
Let’s take a trip back to the '90s and strap on some Rollerblades. Gliding on pavement puts less stress on your limbs while still burning calories. Just make sure you remember how to stop.
20. Cross-country skiing
This flat-terrain travel keeps things heated—even in the cold. So put on your skis and start pumping those poles. You’ll keep the pressure light (as powdery snow) on your body.
Now, now—golf isn’t just for the pros (or the retired). Take a trip to the fairway and get swinging. Bonus points for skipping the golf cart and walking the course!
Originally posted April 2012. Updated March 2017.