Low-Impact Exercises That Burn Major CaloriesEasy-on-the-Joints Workouts That Really Deliver!
-- By Megan Patrick, Staff Writer
If you're new to exercise, overweight, or dealing with pain caused by an injury or a chronic condition like arthritis, your doctor may have recommended that you start a low-impact workout program. But what does "low impact" really mean—and can it really help you burn enough calories to lose weight and get in shape?
For an exercise to be low impact, one foot must always be in contact with the ground or your weight must be supported by water or by a machine. So you've got plenty of options when it comes to choosing a low-impact workout—and that doesn't mean it has to be easy (unless you want it to be). The things you want to avoid are high-impact moves like running, jumping, skipping rope, plyometrics and dance workouts that involve leaping.
Here are 15 low-impact workouts you can try today, ranked by calorie burn (based on a 150-pound female exercising for 30 minutes). Remember, the amount of calories you will burn during a particular fitness routine is determined by several factors including your weight, gender and intensity level. You can calculate your individual calorie burn using SparkPeople's free Fitness Tracker.)
Be sure to "Pin" this graphic for future reference. Scroll below the graphic for details and tips for each type of exercise.
Kettlebell Class: 600 calories per half hour
Kettlebell classes combine strength training and cardio conditioning by using special spherical weights called kettlebells that you move in a swinging motion—and they're one of the highest calorie burners around. While kettlebell workouts are considered strength training, the moves are so intense (engaging many large muscle groups) that they also elevate your heart rate to an aerobic level simultaneously. If you're new to kettlebells, you'll want to get to class early and have the teacher explain proper form and technique. Spend the first part of the class watching the instructor carefully and only join in once you understand how each motion is supposed to be completed. These classes typically involve traditional strength-training movements like squats, presses and snatches, along with kettlebell-specific moves like swings, arranged in a circuit to boost the cardio burn. Because one or both feet are usually planted on the floor when using kettlebells, the closed-chain, low-impact movements are easy on the joints when done correctly.
Lap Swimming: 363 calories per half hour
Swimming is a great, no-impact exercise that maximizes calorie burn. You may feel awkward about wearing a bathing suit in public, but if you go early in the morning, you're likely to find a small group of people who are just like you. Start with a basic freestyle stroke (or crawl) that you likely learned as a child. You'll use all your major muscles including your back, shoulders, core and glutes to propel yourself through the water. Besides a supportive swim suit, you might want to consider buying a pair of goggles to protect your eyes from the chlorine (and so you can see where you're going). Water exercise has a host of benefits; in addition to being easy on the joints, people generally work harder in water without perceiving their workouts as intense, thanks to the water's cooling effects.
Boxing Class: 287 calories per half hour
Don't worry, you won't actually have to hit someone if you take a boxing class. Instead, you'll hit punching bags and shadow box (throw punches that don't make contact with anything), which is more challenging than it sounds. Your boxing instructor will likely lead you through some traditional calisthenics (be sure to skip the jumping jacks and burpees, which are high-impact) as well as squats, wall sits and sit-ups. If you explain your needs or limitations ahead of time, a good instructor will offer you alternate moves for jumping exercises. Note that some boxing classes also involve various kicking drills. Keeping one foot on the ground at all times will keep your joints a little safer, so skip any jumping or hinge kicks.
Rowing Machine: 281 calories per half hour
Few cardio workouts work your body from head to toe—without impact—the way rowing does. If you use proper form, a rowing machine will target all your major muscle groups, as well as provide a serious cardiovascular challenge for any fitness level. You can control the intensity of the workout by increasing or decreasing the resistance of the machine and/or your own speed. To increase the calorie burn, try doing intervals of one minute of all-out effort, followed by a minute or two of lower intensity to catch your breath. Repeat the intervals 10 times to start. You can experiment with adjusting the length of time you spend at max effort versus recovery, as well as the number of intervals you complete per session.
Circuit Training: 264 calories per half hour
Circuit training adds an aerobic challenge to resistance training by alternating between different muscle-strengthening exercises with little to no rest between exercises. This elevates the heart rate and makes for a super-efficient workout. Many bootcamp-style fitness classes use circuits to burn calories and build muscles at the same time. You can design your own circuit workouts using simple equipment like dumbbells, medicine balls and even your own body weight.
Spinning: 238 calories per half hour
Although Spinning (indoor cycling) happens in a class environment, it's a very personal workout: You control everything from your speed to your resistance level, and no one but you knows just how hard you're working (or if you're taking it easy). Spinning is perfect for people who can't follow the choreography of a typical aerobics class since all you have to do is pedal a stationary bike. But if you push yourself, you certainly feel a burn in your lungs and your legs that means you're building strength and endurance. If it's your first class, make sure your instructor helps you set up your bike properly; this will help keep your joints at the proper angle and alignment so that they don't become irritated or painful as you ride. At first, your "seat" will likely be sore after class but that should diminish over time. You can also wear padded bike shorts to ease the discomfort.
Elliptical Machine: 232 calories per half hour
Elliptical trainers get their name from the elongated oval pattern that you move your legs in while you operate them. These machines combine aspects of the treadmill, stepper, bike and cross-country skier to create a low-impact cardio workout that burns major calories. Some ellipticals include moving handlebars to offer more of a full-body workout (and greater calorie burn), but you should always avoid leaning on the handlebars whether they move or not. To get started, you can try one of these interval workouts for the elliptical.
Rollerblading: 231 calories per half hour
If you enjoyed going to the skating rink as a teenager, you might enjoy this slightly more grown-up version of skating. Rollerblading, which you can do on any paved surface, is a low-impact cardio workout that's also a lot of fun! You an increase the calorie burn by skating faster or uphill. You can also do rollerblading intervals like you would an en exercise machine like a rower or elliptical. Like biking, safe rollerblading requires you to be aware of your surroundings at all time, keeping an eye out for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, and have good balance to avoid falls. You'll also want to wear a helmet to protect yourself from potential head injuries. It's also common to wear knee and elbow pads. Just pretend like you're suiting up for the roller derby!
Recumbent Bike: 231 calories per half hour
Stationary bikes come in two varieties, upright and recumbent. Both provide an excellent low-impact cardio workout. But for people who are new to exercise or who suffer from low-back or hip pain, the recumbent bike offers a more supported seated position that will allow you work out longer with less discomfort. On a recumbent bike, your legs should extend almost fully, with only a small bend in the knee. The seat moves forward and backward along a track and is easy to adjust. To increase your calorie burn, you can try an interval workout for the recumbent bike.
Zumba Class: 198 calories per half hour
Cardio dance classes (including Zumba) offer a fun way to burn calories in a group fitness setting that emphasizes music and rhythmic movement. Don't worry if you can't pick up all the choreography right away; Zumba is designed to be repetitive so that you can learn it more easily. You'll have plenty of chances to practice all the moves and you'll catch on in no time. Be sure to bring a towel and a water bottle with you because you are definitely going to sweat. A typical class lasts an hour with 30- to 60-second breaks between songs. Use them to catch your breath and take a drink. Some instructors may incorporate high-impact jumping movements into their classes. Just let your instructor know ahead of time what you can and can't do so that you can take care of your joints.
Ballroom Dancing or Square Dancing: 182 calories per half hour
Have a good time while you burn major calories—without setting foot in the gym. Your local dance studio probably offers a variety of dance classes and lessons. You can find classes on everything from classic ballroom to swing to square dancing. Not only does dancing burn calories, the social aspect of dance reduces stress, depression and loneliness. If you don't have a partner, you can likely find someone else to pair with in your class.
Walking (15-minute mile or 4 miles per hour): 148 calories per half hour
Walking is the ultimate low-impact cardio workout. Just throw on a decent pair of athletic shoes and step right outside your own front door. But you need to move quickly to get the full cardio benefit of walking. You can add an app to your phone to make sure you're walking fast enough and keep track of your distance. Keep your elbows bent and pump your arms to help increase your speed. To burn more calories, try walking uphill. Be sure to keep your knees bent while going back down in order to absorb some of the extra impact. You can also add intervals to your walks to burn even more calories.
Power Yoga (Vinyasa or Ashtanga): 139 calories per half hour
While not all forms of yoga provide a good cardio workout, power yoga (which involves continuous movement from pose to pose) can bring your heart rate up, burn calories and build strength and flexibility. Look for classes that are described as vinyasa, Ashtanga, power or flow for those benefits. If you're new to yoga, you'll want to take a few beginner classes to learn the proper form and how to safely move from one pose to another. (Also, keep in mind that just because "hot" yoga make you sweat more, doesn't mean that it's burning more calories.) Some styles of power yoga involve light jumps (such as from plank to forward bend or from forward fold to plank), but you can always modify by stepping in and out of poses instead of jumping to protect your joints.
Water Aerobics: 132 calories per half hour
There are lots of ways to move your workout to the water, but water aerobics classes are easy to find at large fitness centers that have pools—and even at your local swimming pool during the summer months. Some classes will be more suited to new exercisers, older adults or people with injuries, so be sure to ask which class is right for your needs. If you find you really enjoy this type of workout, you might want to invest in a pair of water shoes to give yourself better traction on the pool deck.
Rebounding (Trampoline Jumping): 111 calories per half hour
Even though it involves jumping and both your feet will leave its surface simultaneously, rebounding or trampoline jumping is still considered a low-impact workout because the trampoline absorbs most of the shock (whereas a hard surface would not). Mini-trampolines are affordable and easy to use outdoors, or in a basement or room with a high enough ceiling and a sturdy floor. You can find DVDs with different fitness routines or you can simply jog in place. You can even do interval training on a trampoline, moving between fast jogging and marching in place. For many people with bad knees, hips or ankles, trampoline workouts offer the higher intensity workout they crave without the jarring impact of running or traditional exercise.
This article has been reviewed and approved by Nicole Nichols, Certified Personal Trainer.