7 Low-Impact Exercises (plus walking!) to Get Active Safely & Burn Calories

Low-impact exercises give you a cardio workout with less impact on your joints, which is great for seniors and people with long-term injuries or health problems. Choose a lower impact activity to get the health benefits of moderate activity even if you can’t (or don’t like to) run long distances, play sports or lift heavy weights. Lower-impact exercises still burn calories, protect and lubricate joints, while being a great stress reliever and happiness booster too.

The best low-impact cardio exercise you can do is actually walking! We’re covering how to make walking even less impact on your body, as well as 7 other options that you can try if you’re feeling adventurous.

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What’s the difference between high and low impact exercise?

Man running on jogging path
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There’s no one accepted definition of “high-impact” vs “low-impact” exercise. Many trainers consider exercise to be low-impact if one foot is on the ground at all times. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, so it’s good to think about impact in terms of the force or shock on your joints. Most of the time the impact is felt in your knees and hips, which are trouble spots for many people.

Compare running with walking, for instance. Runners hit the ground harder on each step, which puts additional strain on joints like the knees. For people with healthy joints or people who love the intensity, high-intensity exercise can offer some great benefits. But for many people, the repeated impact can make joint problems worse and can increase your chances of straining a muscle. Lower-intensity exercise can still get your heart rate up and improve your health, but it’s gentler on your joints and accessible to almost everyone.

Why Is Walking the Best Low-impact Cardio Exercise?

Senior couple hiking up a hill
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Walking burns calories, tones muscles, promotes healthy heart function, and improves walkers’ state of mind—all by putting one foot in front of the other. Walking is real cardio that almost anyone can do, and can form the basis of your cardio routine even if you also add more intense exercise. Walking alone can fulfill your 150-300 minutes of recommended weekly walking, while helping to protect your knees and other joints.

Why is it the best form of low-impact cardio though? Walking can be done anywhere, any time without the need for expensive equipment. Almost everyone can physically walk, at least in short distances. While beginners may not be able to start a tai chi or yoga routine without finding a teacher or class, they can start walking around their neighborhood from the moment they decide to start.

While even low-impact exercises like yoga or tai chi run some risk of slipping, falling, or straining a muscle, walking is very safe and controllable. You can also increase your intensity (and impact) in many ways and on a gradual basis by walking faster.

How To Further Reduce Impact On The Body When Walking And Exercising

Woman stretching hamstrings on a running track
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Walkers can make exercise an even easier process for their joints by using exercise equipment, such as a cushioned treadmill model at the local gym or community center. Walkers can also reduce the impact on their joints by walking from one end of the shallow side of the pool to the other and back.

When walking for a low-impact, low-intensity workout, walkers should avoid walking along steep hills, setting their feet down flat, and walking on rocky or uneven terrain. For long walks, a cushioned walking surface with more give – like a walking or running track, can be much easier on the knees than a hard concrete surface. Although walking on grass or dirt can also take away some of the impact, you’ll have to contend with less secure footing, uneven ground and unexpected holes or rocks.

It’s also important for walkers to use proper posture when walking at all times. Even if you’re dealing with a long-term injury, try your best to stay upright, look ahead and use the correct foot strike. This ensures that your body is in proper alignment so that your joints are working in their strongest range of motion and your most powerful muscles are moving you along. Slouching or walking with bad posture forces joints out of alignment and supporting muscles to shoulder the burden, which can increase the impact on your joints.

Ways To Make Walking More Intense, Without Adding Impact

woman walking up stairs for exercise
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Sometimes just walking isn’t enough—you might feel the plateau coming on, but aren’t ready to take a leap into new exercises yet. There are several ways to make walking more intense without placing much extra impact on any joints, which include:

The possibilities for converting walking from a low-intensity, low-impact exercise into a high-intensity, low-impact exercise are virtually endless. Some prefer to carry walking weights or wear ankle weights, but this can actually impede your walking form and further increase joint stress. Instead, try something like Nordic walking for a full body exercise.

Other Great Low Impact Exercises

Yoga

Middle aged adults doing yoga in a park
Rido / Shutterstock

Yoga builds strength and flexibility through a series of movements and static poses. There are many types and schools of yoga – from fast dynamic movements to long, difficult strength-building poses to slow, restorative stretches. To lower the impact on your joints or if you’re new, look for slower, beginner classes. Some yoga styles are very relaxed and easy, while focusing on meditation-like rhythmic breathing. These are great for beginners and people who may have joint problems. As you develop more flexibility, you can try more intense or difficult movements and poses.

Tai Chi

group doing tai chi next to lake
May_Chanikran / Shutterstock

Tai Chi is an ages-old Chinese practice which involves substantial amounts of stretching, body positioning, and breathing pattern control. Tai Chi is an effective means of toning muscles and reducing stress through physical expression. Some believe that the energy within can help heal damage inflicted by stress over long periods of time. Whether or not it actually affects your energy, Tai Chi can give you a slow, deliberate, yoga-like workout while standing up and moving around.

Swimming

Group swimming in a pool for exercise
Nomad_Soul / Shutterstock

Not only is swimming among the lowest impact options possible, but it is also one of the most intensive forms of cardio. Swimming takes the weight off of walkers’ joints, allowing even painful back problems to float from memory and heal from beneficial exercise, reduced stress, and increased blood flow. You don’t have to be a professional swimmer to get benefits. Even walking in the shallow end of the pool can be a challenging workout!

Cycling

Friends biking in the park
Jacek Chabraszewski / Shutterstock

Cycling, like walking, is an intensive, low-impact form of exercise. Cycling generally costs more than walking (unless you happen to have a bike laying around!) For those who cannot afford a new bike readily, seek out a local fitness or community center. There are very high odds that they will have stationary bikes, which walkers can use to very similar effect.

Elliptical

Training on an elliptical machine
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Elliptical machines provide a lower-impact workout than walking or especially running on a treadmill. Because your feet are set and not constantly striking the ground, ellipticals can be easier on the knees. Ellipticals are also excellent options for those who prefer to exercise somewhere they can rest readily. They often have adjustable resistance levels, like treadmills and other exercise machines. Many also have handles that allow you to work your upper body as you walk.

Rowing

Man in high-rise using rowing machine
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Rowing is a lower impact motion that gives you both a cardio and strength workout. You can row in the safety of a home or gym with a rowing machine. Fees for rowing equipment vary, but many gyms and community centers have them readily available for public use. If you’re not familiar with rowing form, check online or ask a trainer for tips to keep your back straight as you row.

Kayaking (if you’re feeling adventurous!)

Couple kayaking in a lake
G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock

Kayaking is a great way to get out and see nature unabashed of the world-changing around it. Animals, fresh air, and more await on a journey into the wilderness. The main limiting factor in kayaking is the cost of buying a kayak, and the time and travel that may be required to find a river to kayak on. Fortunately, kayaks can often be rented for just a few dollars. If you live near a river, there may be a less intense rafting outfit where you can still do some paddling with a guide in a shared raft.

Final Thoughts

Even if you have some joint problems, there’s a good chance you can still get out and exercise by choosing lower-impact movements. Walking isn’t just for people with joint problems either! Anyone can benefit from a good, low impact workout.

Just remember—walking and other low-impact exercises can easily become high-intensity exercises without being hard on vital joints.

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46 thoughts on “7 Low-Impact Exercises (plus walking!) to Get Active Safely & Burn Calories

  1. I have a new knee and I learn a lot from
    your advice. I used to be a runner every day but on
    the pavements. If only I had known about your advice then. Thanks

    1. What you walk on definitely makes a difference! Shoes and other factors can help, but if you can find a walking or running track to walk on it’s much easier on your knees. Sometimes I take a hard step by accident on concrete or stone pavement and it really hurts. It’s not easy to find a path like that, so I totally understand why you’d run on whatever surface was available.

      If you go to a gym, I’ve found the elliptical is much lower impact. You don’t have to hit down with your knee each time. Hope your knee is doing better! Thanks for following our blog by the way!

  2. Hi, i’ve just been diagnosed with osteoporosis in my lumbar spine and the beginnings of osteoporosis in the neck of both females. Which would be the best low impact exercise for me. I have previously done quite a bit of walking and I can only do the breaststroke. I also belong to the gym but I only lose it for the Pilates and yoga classes. Nina

    1. Hi Nina! It’s tough to say which low impact exercise is best. You’d need to ask your doctor for your specific medical condition. Walking is usually pretty low impact for most people – your walking surface can make a difference though. A walking track or softer surface can help. Classes like pilates and yoga might be lower impact than something like running. Hope this helps, and good luck!

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