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Getting a Good Workout with Low Impact Exercise

Low impact exercise is often used in conjunction with the words gentle, easy or light and is often recommended for people who can't or don't want to do high intensity exercise. But what if you want to work hard, but don't want all the jumping around? Can low impact exercise help you burn calories and lose weight as well as high impact moves? Absolutely.

High Impact Exercise Isn't for Everyone

If you're trying to lose weight, you know that getting into the middle-high range of your target heart rate zone (about 65% to 85% of max heart rate) is important for burning calories. You also probably know that it's easier to get your heart rate up when you're jumping around. But, for some people, high impact exercise just isn't an option. Some reasons you may have to avoid high impact are:

  • Pregnancy
  • Injuries in the joints, bones or connective tissue
  • Chronic problems like arthritis, osteoporosis or stress fractures
  • Being a beginning exerciser
  • Being very overweight
  • An aversion to high impact exercise

While it's important to have some type of impact for healthy bones, you don't necessarily have to jump around to get an intense workout. Many low impact exercises (which simply means one foot is always in contact with the ground) can get your heart rate into your target heart rate zone...the catch is, you may have to work a little harder.

Making the Most of Low Impact Exercise

If you've ever added any running into your walking workouts or tried some jump roping for the first time in years, you probably noticed how high your heart rate shoots up. But, if you can't or don't want to do high impact exercises, there are some alternatives. The following are just a few of the most popular low impact activities along with some tricks for getting the most our of your workouts.


Walking is by far the most popular low impact exercise, but in order to get your heart rate up there are some things you may need to do.

  • Walk faster. One mistake we often make is walking too slowly to get the heart rate up. Wendy, About's Walking Guide, offers a great tutorial for How to Walk Faster. Picking up the pace can help you up the intensity of your workouts.
  • Try interval training. By adding short bursts of speed or an occasional steep hill to your walking workouts, you can increase the intensity of your workouts as well as your calorie-burn. Try one of these Hill Workouts on the Treadmill or one of the Beginner Interval Workouts to get started.
  • Use your arms. Make sure you're not holding onto the treadmill and, when you're outside, swing your arms to keep the intensity up. Holding weights as you walk is a no-no (it can cause injury), but consider using walking poles as an alternative.
  • Mix things up. If walking is your sole source of cardio, cross-train with other activities to keep your body challenged. Walking is something we do every day and, therefore, we're very good at it. Learning something you're not as adept at can be a great boost to your endurance and fat loss.

Walking the Stairs

Walking up stairs, whether they're real stairs or the revolving staircase at the gym, can be an incredibly intense workout and a great way to get your heart rate up. If you're a beginner, try adding a few minutes of stairclimbing to your usual workout or hop on the stepmill at the gym for a quick five minutes towards the end of your workout. You'll find you don't have to go very fast to get your heart rate up.


Hiking can be another tough low impact activity, especially if you're hiking up an incline. The changing terrain requires a lot of work from the lower body and walking up a mountain involves the large muscles of the glutes, hips and thighs - exactly what you want for an intense cardio workout. Add a backpack and you're burning even more calories.

Step Aerobics

Step aerobics can be a great alternative if you like choreographed exercise but don't want the pounding of hi/lo aerobics. Because you're stepping onto an elevated platform, you can typically get your heart rate up without doing any jumping. Using the arms can add more intensity the the workout as well. Cathe Friedrich is just one video instructor who offers low impact workouts for the more advanced exerciser such as Low Impact Circuit, Low Impact Step and Low Max Step. You can also try group fitness classes or other more advanced videos that may include high impact and modify the workout to keep it low.

Other Alternatives

You can also choose other activities that have no impact, but still offer high intensity workouts like cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, the Versaclimber or rowing. Any of these activities can be intense if you work hard, but you may also want to cross-train with impact activities to keep your body challenged in different ways.

Adding Intensity to Your Workouts

The key to making low impact exercise work is to work a little harder by involving your entire body in what you're doing. Try some of these ideas for making your workouts more intense:

  • Add upper body movements. Upper body moves can contribute to your overall intensity so think of swinging your arms when you walk, raising the arms overhead during step or other types of aerobics or choosing machines at the gym with upper body options like a cross-country ski machine or elliptical trainer.
  • Go Faster. Picking up the pace, whether you're walking, cycling or ellipticalling (did I make that up?), is another way to make your workouts a little tougher.
  • Use big movements. Another way to add intensity is to use big, exaggerated movements. For example, if you were marching in place, you could make the move harder by bringing the knees up high and circling the arms overhead.
  • Involve the lower body. Most cardio activities do involve the lower body, but you can add intensity without impact by doing things like squats or lunges to really get the legs involved. Add walking lunges or side steps with squats to your usual walking workout to increase intensity.

If you're looking for a low impact workout check out this Low Impact Cardio Blast Workout and this very challenging Low Impact Cardio Challenge. These workouts involve circuits of intense, low impact moves that will get your heart going without any jumping.

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