Deep Impact: Understanding High and Low Impact Exercises

In the grand scheme of things, the best way to stay healthy is to eat right and get in enough exercise. Unfortunately, neither of those things is especially straightforward. “Exercise” comprises a whole range of activities, and unless you’re getting a group fitness certification, you don’t necessarily need to learn them all. One of the greatest areas of contention is high versus low impact exercise. Let’s take a closer look at the two and which you should be doing.

Aiming High

High impact exercises generally describe workouts where both your feet leave the ground at the same time. That might seem like it only refers to plyometrics and jumping rope, but anything from step aerobics to jumping jacks counts as high impact exercise. Even jogging or running requires both feet to leave the ground for a fraction of a second. High impact exercises are characteristically intense and can effectively strengthen your bones.

So what’s all this talk about impact? Well, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s Newton’s third law of physics. As your body applies force to the ground, it also has to absorb the resulting impact. That might not seem like a big deal, but let’s say you’re going for a run. Generally, your legs only have to carry all 135 pounds of you when you’re walking. As your feet leave the ground, you land on one foot. That one foot has to take the impact of about 270 pounds, which spreads up to the ankles, knees, and hips. That’s a lot for your joints to deal with, especially considering that’s 270 pounds on every step you take.

Staying Low

Low impact exercise is described as any exercise wherein one of your feet remains in constant contact with the ground. Walking, hiking, and step aerobics are a good example of this. Others consider cycling, swimming, and elliptical workouts to be low impact, but these are actually no impact as your body is constantly supported during movement (by bike, water, or machine).

Seated workouts and free weights don’t require excessive force or pounding. Neither do Pilates and yoga. However, impact workouts generally refer to cardio exercises, not strength training or toning.

Low impact does get your heart rate up, but it tends to be less intense than high impact.

What’s Right for You?

If you’re relatively fit and healthy, you shouldn’t have much problem handling high impact exercises, but realize that too much high impact exercise can lead to joint pains. Your best bet is to balance the two. Split your weekly routine into three days of running and two days of low impact activities—spinning, walking, swimming. You’ll reduce the stress on your joints and give your body a chance to heal.

If you’re older, pregnant, obese, or have existing joint problems, you’ll want to focus entirely on low and no impact workouts to reduce the risk of any musculoskeletal injury.

High or low, just make sure you do actually get your butt off the couch throughout the week.

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