Low Impact vs. High Impact Exercises: Which is Right for You?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
People often ask me whether certain workouts are "high impact" or "low impact," and in answering them, I have discovered is that there is a lot of confusion among exercisers about what these terms really mean. Yes, they deal somewhat with overall intensity and calorie burn, and are important for fitness tracking, but there's more to it than that. Low- and high-impact exercises offer different benefits and pose different risks. So here are the basics you need to know about the highs and lows of these different forms of exercise.

Fitness Defined: Low-Impact and High-Impact Exercises (And Which is Right for You)

Low-Impact Exercises
Simply stated, a workout is low-impact if at least one of your feet remains in contact with the ground at all times. Walking, hiking, rollerblading and most step aerobics and cardio dance workouts are low-impact. Some people consider exercises such as water aerobics, swimming, cycling and the elliptical machine to be low impact as well, but you may also see these described as "no impact" since both feet stay on the ground at all times and/or your body is supported during movement (by water or a machine). Seated workouts, arm ergometers, and gentler mat-based workouts such as Pilates and yoga may also be considered low or no-impact since they do not involve excessive pounding or force on the lower body joints, but in general both low- and high-impact workouts refer to cardio (not strength training or toning).

Who Should Go Low? Low-impact exercises are most appropriate for beginners, as well as people with arthritis or osteoporosis, older adults, individuals who are obese, pregnant women, and people with bone, joint, connective tissue injuries. That's because low-impact exercise tend to be less jarring on the body and joints, and less intense overall (more on that below). According to the American Council on Exercise, keeping at least one foot on the ground at all times also reduces your risk of musculoskeletal injury.

It's perfectly fine for people without the concerns listed above to perform low-impact exercises, but fitter individuals may have to work harder to reach their target heart rate zone when choosing low-impact exercises.

High-Impact Exercises
In these workouts, both feet leave the ground at the same time, as is the case during running, hopping, jumping rope, skipping, jumping jacks, plyometrics, some step aerobics (if you jump on or off the step or run around the room), and some cardio dancing that involves leaping.

Who Should Aim High? High-impact exercises tend to be more intense overall and therefore burn more calories. They may even strengthen bones better than lower impact options, but any impact can help with that, even if it's light. These types of exercises should be reserved for people who already have a baseline of fitness and are at low risk for joint problems because they pose a higher risk for injury, especially to the ankle, knee and hip joints as well as the spine. How?

If you remember high school science class, Newton's third law (the law of impact and reaction forces) explains why. For every action (force applied by one body to a second), there is an equal and opposite reaction (the second applies an equal force on the first but in the opposite direction). Whew! What that means as that your body must absorb the impact forces during high-impact moves. The force on your body while running (high impact) can be more than twice that of walking (low impact). A 150-pound person who runs will land on one foot with about 300 foot pounds of pressure on the ankle, knee and hip joints. This can result in overuse and stress injuries, especially in larger people and at fast speeds. There is no rule that you must progress to high-impact exercises as you get fitter, although many people choose to do so for an increased challenge or greater variety. Keep in mind that many programs combine high and low impact exercises into a single workout and that sometimes, the line isn't as clear. "Rebounding," or jumping on a mini trampoline, involves jumping (high impact) but reduces the impact thanks to the give of the surface, for example.

My Choice
Since I already have a baseline of fitness and am not at risk for joint problems, higher impact exercises are appropriate for me intensity-wise, but I try to balance the two. To counter the high impact of running, which I do just three days a week, I choose low-impact workouts like Spinning and walking on the other days. This way, I'm not constantly stressing my joints and body with high impact moves that could result in injury over time. As you may have figured out, balancing the risk and benefits of high and low impact exercises is another great reason to cross train.

Now you know how to classify the various workouts, classes and DVDs you do, you can track them appropriately on your Fitness Tracker as either low-impact or high-impact aerobics. I hope you are also thinking about which types of exercises are most appropriate for your fitness level and body, too.

Do you choose high impact or low impact exercises most often? Will this information change your workout plan?

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I fall into several categories which tell me "low impact" is right for me. I often find myself in a class where high impact maneuvers are called for. I simply modify the exercise within my ability to perform the task without falling down and move on! Report
I guess I've been a low impact gal for a looong time without even knowing it. I liked the explanation. Never thought about "no impact" tho' - that was an interesting observation. Report
Because of some bad experiences with injuries in my younger days--twisted ankles, shin splints and the like-- I've been doing just low impact since my 20's (walking, very low impact aerobics when the weather's too bad to walk, and strength training ). The strange thing is that so far I am the only one of my close female relatives with strong bones and I am the only one who works out. It may be due to some luck in the genetic lottery, but I can't help but wonder if low impact, over the long haul, isn't a better bone-builder than is generally credited. Maybe it is the strength training but my personal experience is that the benefits of low impact, done regularly and over a lifetime, is given short-shrift by the experts. Is it just their opinion or are there real studies to show that a lifetime of low-impact exercises will not maintain bone health? Report
High impact exercise is bad for joints (and for the bones generally) for the following reasons:
1. HIE (High Impact Exercise) makes bones denser, not stronger. Over-dense bones become less flexible, more brittle and more likely to fracture. This happens because HIE increases bone microfractures which get filled with new bone, making them over-dense. There is ample research to show this. We want strong bones for tensile strength, not over-dense bones that become brittle and inflexible.
2. HIE wears out the cartilage that normally serves as a shock-absorbing cushion between bones. Its breakdown results in bones rubbing directly against one another during movement. Such friction causes the bone to thicken so that spurs (bony growths) may develop between joints. Stiffness, pain and loss of movement may occur as the joint lining becomes inflamed by cartilage breakdown and spur growth.
3. HIE erodes osteoblasts (cells that maintain and re-new bone). This happens because HIE greatly increases bone microfractures. In the process of filling the microfractures with new bone about 70% of osteoblast cells involved in making the new bone will perish. As the body's potential for producing osteoblasts is limited, you always want to minimize their erosion. The risk of osteoporosis and joint problems is increased when osteoblasts cannot make enough new bone to keep up with the rate of decomposition of old bone that is always melting away.
Russell Eaton
Author of 'Why You Should Never Exercise', www.deliveredonline.com Report
I will probably always have to do low-impact or mostly low impact. I've had knee problems since I was eleven years old (and not overweight at all)...they're genetic. I can improve my day to day life with my knees (and I have) but a lot of jumping is probably never going to happen. Doesn't mean I don't get in a good sweat session, it just means modifying a lot and walking fast vs running. Report
If you would like more information on racewalking, check out two books from racewalkclinic.com, they are: Race Walk Faster by training smarter, and Race Walk Clinic in a book. Report
i do zumba once a week, golf 2-5 times a week,line dance 1-2 times a week,nw taking ballroom dancing, spin class 1-3 times a week,body pump2-3 times a week....all i know is i can not do anymore!.I am60 ,have arthritis in my feet ,hip and back: ,PVD,asthma so I am in motion as long s I can be. my weightloss is painfully slow bue am stronger than I have been for a long time...Do what you CAN WHILE YOU CAN.............. Report
I do more low impact exercise than high. But, I do try to put some high impact activity in the mix from time to time. Report
Such a useful article; I do some step aerobics and my knees occassionally hurt afterwards, so I know it can be low and high impact. Many thanks Report
It puts my choices to a better benefit. Somethings I've used I thought were High impact because of the exertion but I'm glad I got it straight now. I enjoy circuit training which can use both low and high impact and other activities which leaves me not to doubt. Plus I get a larger calorie burn. Thanks for educating us more each day. Report
Great Blog. I usually think of low-impact as low intensity and vice versa. But, that isn't really true. I mean, Spinning and Elliptical are low impact, but definitely get the HR going!!

I think BOTH are beneficial in different ways. It is most beneficial to have some variety in your workout; targeting different parts of your body. I love running and the elliptical, but I also love Yoga. All are highly beneficial no matter any "conditions" I may have--I happen to be 24 weeks pregnant, but still run about 3 days a week (schedule permitting), but walk, do Yoga and Strength Training the other days. Report
I like both usually in the same workout. Enough high to get my heart rate up then again to keep it up there. Report
Low impact for me - my weight demands it! But, I still get a great workout. Report
This is a timely blog for me. I've been taking an intensive Zumba class twice a week for several weeks. Jumping and landing on two feet makes me feel like a kid. One step is jumping high on one leg with the other knee raised to 90 degrees. We do that for 8 counts at a time for a total of 24 jumps on each leg. After reading this blog I'm thinking 240 lbs of pressure can cause more damage than I want to risk for feeling like a kid at age 57. Report
Low for me. Bad knees and back, and not much energy yet Report
I used to do high impact, but now I listen to my body and stick with low; I'm even leaning more to the no-impact. Report
I take whatever I can get Report
I prefer low impact at least for now just starting out. Report
I try to balance low and high impact. Also, if my knees start to bother me, I go to the low and work extra hard to cover more ground. I listen to my body. Report
I tried to jump rope for more intensity. After several days of only 100 jumps I developed severe pain in my heel. My body was telling me I was past my jump-rope days at age 63! Report
Thanks for this article. I was wondering what the difference was. I do the low impact. Report
I use both at times because I skip a lot and do jumping jacks too.And my low would be my floor exercises. Report
I use both at times because I skip a lot and do jumping jacks too.And my low would be my floor exercises. Report
I do low impact, and will continue to do so. My hips and knees do not appreciate high impact. Report
This was a good article to understand the difference, it probably wont' change my work out too much as i know what i enjoy during my work out (cycling, dancing, tae-bo, etc). Report
I learned that what I had been calling my 'low impact' on the tracker is really a cross-training, we do a combo of both low and high. Then on alternate days I do a 3mile fast walk, as my knees are not as happy with running..... Report
I like ZUMBA (lots of clips on YouTube) as it is fun and not High Impact. Report
I do both. High impact burns more calories for me and is more fun. I am trying to loose weight so high impact burns more calories. I like to do tae bo and aerobic workout videos and on my off days I like to walk. Report
Great article. I do both as well, although mostly low impact. Report
Low impact due to several factors; arthritis, obesity, age, and being out of shape. I do however take part in an high intensity water aerobics class since I don't feel the stress and pressure on my knees in the water. Report
I like to do interval training and will do both too.. Report
My passion is bicycling, but since it's a no-impact exercise, I know I have to do other things. I also run, although only about once every two weeks, walk and weight-train. Report
I go for water aerobics, bike riding, or yoga. I have arthritis, in all of my joints, it seems. My hips, knees and shoulders. there is no way, I can do high impact. I do the pool mostly, and do love it. I feel I get a very good work out each day. Report
i choose both, i am 133lb woman that is still out of shape.
so i chose both. Report
I have an undiagnoised health problem and have been with hips and hands that don't work for 5 yrs now. I started teaching yoga when i tried it to help keep my mucles moving. Yoga is a great low impact exercise! Thanks for the great article. Report
I have scoliosis, and I find that low impact workouts (elliptical) really help me... I still feel pain at times, but I'm a wreck after jogging on the treadmill. So I stick to elliptical...which I love anyway! Report
low for now- hoping for high as I get fitter... Report
Both I like to mix it up and not let my body get use to the samething over and over... Report
I stick to mostly low-impact stuff. My knees & shins can only handle high-impact exercise a little at a time Report
I usually do both, although I never realized the difference before until I read this article. Thanks for the info! Report
Low-impact--but fast--walking for me, since I injured my shoulder after several falls while running on city sidewalks. I mix in just a bit of running to increase the intensity. Report
I do low impact due to the stress on everythingbelow my waist! Report
Thanks for posting this article! As I am changing my life learning and *understanding* all of the "things" I thought I already knew is really helpful. Report
My family has bad joints and though I don't technically have arthritis I still do low impact workouts. Report
I needed this article....thanks!
Low impact for me :o) Report
Great article...thanks for clearing up the confusion over low vs high impact exercise. I had always thought that high impact only meant higher speed and intensity, and was surprised to learn that it means both feet leave the ground at the same time. All this time I thought I had been doing some high impact exercise, but it truly wasn't.
Now I'll be sure to try adding some high impact exercise to my regular routine. Report
I'm well versed in what I am capable of and not capable of in terms of specific exercises. I was always able to do weights both upper and lower, am now banned from doing lower weights. I've always done lower impact workouts because of the damage higher impact does on my joints and my back. I had a major back injury when I was in my teens along with development of arthritis in my joints. Add in that I used to be a nurse and my knees took on all the lifting, it means that I have to be kind to my body now or simply not walk later down the road. The article hasn't changed this or heightened my awareness regarding all this. If I could, I would be working out in water but its not an option - no pool. It's a good basic article for those new to all this area. Report
I'm afraid I'm sort of stuck with low impact because I have plates and screws holding one leg together and I have an undifferentiated autoimmune disease that attacks the joints when it flares up. Thank goodness it's been in remission for almost six years, but I don't torture the joints any more than absolutely necessary for fear of triggering another bout with it.

I used to think I could work toward the day when I could run again, but I'm afraid those days are over. Just too much jarring on the plates and screws.

When I walk I move pretty darned fast, though, so it's almost as effective as running. Report
Low impact because of my osteoarthritis... and I was shocked to discover after several retests that my resting pulse is 48! Report
Low impact- water aerobics, stairs, walking & sitting exercises with richard simmons :) Report
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