9 Low-Impact, High-Intensity Cardiovascular Workouts

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Running burns a ton of calories, so do jump rope and plyometric exercises (think burpees, box jumps). But they’re also super high-impact. High-impact meaning that, at some point both your feet are in the air and you land back on terra firma with a resounding thump. Again. And again. And again. Case in point, when you run your body has to absorb an impact about two and a half times your body weight every time you take a step.12

But make no bones about it. High-impact exercise is a good thing. It puts the bones under stress, causing them to respond by becoming stronger, increasing bone density.345 Unfortunately, the repeated pounding can take a toll on the bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. This may lead to injury, especially when the amount or intensity of training is increased too quickly or there is inadequate rest and recovery.678

Enter the low-impact workout. Low-impact exercise works the cardiorespiratory system (heart and lungs) just as hard as high-impact exercise, but nixes all that jumping and landing business. This means low-impact workouts place little biomechanical stress on the body. In other words, low-impact does what high-impact does, but without the strain on your joints.

Who Benefits from Low-Impact Workouts

In short, everyone. Everyone and anyone can benefit by including low-impact cardio in their training routine. Low-impact workouts are particularly beneficial:

  • Injury. If you have been injured or are returning from injury, and can’t do your regular high-impact sport (e.g. running), low-impact activities can help you maintain fitness while sidelined.9 But don’t forget your rehab and strength training exercises.
  • Lower body joint problems. If you suffer with joint issues (e.g. arthritis), the fear of further pain or of aggravating things can make it tempting to avoid exercise altogether. However, this can worsen joint problems and lead to a cascade of further issues down the line. On the other hand, low-impact exercise can help reduce pain, improve function, strengthen muscle, and increase fitness, without the pounding of painful joints.1011121314
  • Cross-training. If you do a lot of high-impact exercise, adding some low-impact cardio to your regular routine allows you to increase your training volume and strengthen your cardiovascular system, without the leg pounding stress. You’re also working your muscles in a different way, improving overall fitness. All together, this means that cross-training can help prevent overtraining and reduce the risk of injury.1516
  • Women. Female athletes may benefit from incorporating some low-impact cardio into a routine otherwise dominated by high-impact exercise. Due to hormonal, biomechanical and anatomical factors women are more prone to sustaining knee injuries during activities such as running than men.1718

If you have joint problems, an injury, or any other underlying musculoskeletal or medical conditions, remember to get the all clear from your doctor or physical therapist before starting exercise. They’ll advise which exercises to avoid and which activities may best reduce pain and increase function.

While the exercises below may be low-impact, they can be high-intensity. Therefore, start slowly. Gradually increase the duration, intensity or frequency of a workout, especially if you’ve been inactive.

Low-Impact, High-Intensity

Low-impact does not mean low-intensity. It’s easy to conflate impact (how hard you hit the ground) and intensity (how difficult an exercise feels). Go-hard-or-go-home, high-intensity workouts aren’t limited to high-impact sports such as running. Low-impact activities can be super tough too, burn a ton of calories and boost your heart health. So no need to sacrifice high-intensity for easy-on-the-joints, low-impact workouts. You can have your cake and eat it too.

In short, low-impact is not a step down from high-impact. Here’s the lowdown on low-impact activities that can deliver an incredible high-intensity workout and leave you with that oh-so-sweet runner’s high.

Stair Climbing

This workout will kick your butt and work up a serious sweat. Tougher than high-impact running, stair climbing will tone and strengthen your legs and seriously improve your cardiovascular fitness. There’s a reason no-one wants to take the stairs. Stair climbing will make you look forward to running.

Intensity: Climbing stairs burns the equivalent amount of calories as running a 10-minute mile.1920Short, intense bouts of stair climbing boost cardiorespiratory fitness and can reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol.2122

Muscles: Stair climbing targets the core, glutes, thighs and calves. Taking two steps at a time (or bigger steps on a stair climber) makes the workout more challenging and also works the glutes and front of thighs harder.23

Where: You can climb real stairs indoors or out, or use a stair climbing machine. Complete a stair climbing workout in one session or break it up and do it throughout the day (e.g. taking the stairs instead of the elevator).

How: Whichever option you choose, maintain good posture. Keep your trunk upright and core engaged. Avoid hunching or learning too far forward. Your neck and shoulders should be relaxed. Place the whole of your foot on the step and push down through your heels as well as the balls of your feet, so that you work all your leg muscles as effectively as possible.

Read more: Ultimate strength- and cardio workout: Stair-climbing 

Cycling & Spinning

If you’ve ever been to a spinning class, you know. You know spinning can make every other workout look like a walk in the park. The great thing about cycling is that it’s for everyone. Indoors or out. Solitary or social. For fitness or to actually get somewhere. Mountain bike, road bike, folding bike, or stationary bike. There’s a bike and a tribe for every personality.

Intensity: Spinning is a high-intensity workout that burns a large number of calories and is an effective way to lose weight.242526 Outdoor cycling can be just as good. The main difference is that there’s no instructor motivating you to push hard, so it’s up to you to keep up the intensity. The good news is that when you’re in the great outdoors you’re less prone to fatigue and more likely to exercise harder compared to cycling indoors.2728

Where: Cycling is an incredible exercise whether you ride outdoors, use a stationary exercise bike, or love yourself a spinning class. Cycling indoors is practical and spinning is a fast and furious stress-relieving workout. When you hit the outdoors and head for nature you reap an abundance of physical and psychological health benefits.2930

Muscles: Cycling gives all the major muscles of the lower body a tough workout, especially when you crank up the resistance. Cycling outdoors also targets the core muscles, which work to keep you balanced and stable on the bike. However, unlike many of the other low-impact activities cycling does not target the upper body.

How: Whether you cycle indoors or out, ride with good form and set up your bike to fit you properly. This ensures you are able to move efficiently and stay comfortable. It will also reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries.3132

If you’re new to cycling, start out slowly and gradually increase the length, intensity, and resistance. Cycling is relatively easy on the joints, but the repetitive pedaling motion can cause knee pain if you abruptly increase the difficulty and overdo things.333435

Be mindful: Cycling is suitable for all ages and fitness levels. However, spinning is a strenuous workout that requires some degree of fitness.36 If you’ve been inactive for some time, begin with moderate exercise. If you cycle outdoors always wear a helmet and bright, high-visibility clothing.

Read on: Beginner’s guide to cycling

Rowing

Rowing is about as tough a workout as it gets. More than that, rowing does it all. Both a strength and an endurance exercise, it works just about every muscle in your body and is completely impact-free.3738

Muscles: Rowing strengthens your glutes, legs, arms, core, and back, and also increases endurance of the heart and lungs. In other words, you’re getting an incredible cardio workout, but also doing strength moves that are similar to heavy duty exercises such as deadlifts, seated rows, and calf raises.

Where: You can row indoors on a rowing machine or outdoors (if you have access to a boat and a large body of water). Work out alone or keep it social. In recent years rowing has grown in popularity, with motivational group exercise classes and rowing-specific studios similar to SoulCycle springing up.

How: Rowing isn’t difficult to master, but takes a little practice. It you’re new to rowing, start with a 10-minute workout. Gradually increase resistance, intensity and time as you as you get accustomed to the movement and to avoid early overuse. Remember to allow for adequate rest and recovery.39

Be mindful: It’s important to row using good technique to prevent injury, especially of the lower back. A common mistake is to round the back and slump forward, which stresses the lower back and exposes it to injury.40

Read more: Why you need to practice proper form

Hill Walking

Walking is low-impact, free, and boasts a list of health benefits too long to mention (especially outdoors).4142 Switch up your walk by increasing the incline and you’ve got yourself a super challenging cardiovascular and strength workout.

Intensity: Walking uphill is more demanding and burns more calories, because the muscles have to do more work to propel you forward, as well as upward against gravity. Indeed, walking up a hill with a 10% incline at a brisk pace of 3.4 mph burns about the same amount of calories as jogging. That’s more than double the calories than walking on level ground.4344

Muscles: Walking uphill works the lower body muscles harder. The glutes, quadriceps (front of thigh muscles), and calves get a more intense workout than walking on the flat.45 You also use the muscles of your core and arms more, as you lean forward slightly to help propel yourself up the hill.

Where: You can walk uphill using a treadmill. Most treadmills can increase the incline up to 15%. Alternatively, find your nearest hill and walk in your neighborhood. Another option is to leave your urban surroundings behind and immerse yourself in nature. It doesn’t get much better than hiking up a hill with picturesque surroundings and being rewarded with uninterrupted views at the top.

How: When you head outside, try hill repeats – walk uphill at a brisk pace and recover as you slowly walk back down. This makes for a great interval workout and has the added benefit of protecting the knees from the increased strain of walking downhill.46

Be mindful: If you like the treadmill, crank up the incline. But no holding onto the handrails to help propel you forward; that only makes your workout less effective. Set the treadmill at a speed and incline at which you can safely walk without holding on.

Read more: How to lose weight walking

Swimming

Swimming is the ultimate low-impact workout. Not just cardiovascular exercise, swimming builds muscle strength as you fight against the resistance of the water, which is about 800 times more dense than air. No need to turn up the resistance on this one – it’s built in.

Exercising in water creates a unique workout environment and has many benefits:

  • The water supports the majority of your body weight, which takes the stress off your joints and improves range of movement.47 This makes swimming and aquatic exercise (e.g. jogging in water, Aquarobics) a fantastic workout for people with musculoskeletal issues such as arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, and those recovering from injury.4849
  • The hydrostatic pressure and temperature of the water helps reduce musculoskeletal pain.5051 Swimming and other water-based exercise also improve mood and decrease anxiety.5253
  • The pressure of the water on the body increases cardiac output, blood flow to muscles, and removal of metabolic waste products from the muscles.54
  • Swimming requires you to control your breathing, which forces the body to work with the oxygen it has. Research shows this improves how the muscles use oxygen and increases running economy (a good predictor of performance).55 So the benefits of swimming cross over into other sporting activities. 

Intensity: Swimming as a workout is challenging. For example, the butterfly is one most intense movements in all of sport, burning more calories than running a 10-minute mile.

Muscles: Swimming strengthens every major muscle in your body, whether you swim freestyle, breaststroke or butterfly. Pulling your body through the water works the back and shoulders, while kicking your legs strengthens your chest, butt, and thighs. And your core works keeps the whole thing together by holding your body up, keeping you balanced, and maintaining good form in the water.

Still, each stroke emphasizes slightly different muscle groups. Therefore, include a variety of different strokes for a fully rounded workout.

How: Swim steady-state or try interval training. Use a kickboard, pull buoy, or aqua weights to strengthen different body parts. If you’re a good swimmer but haven’t been swimming for exercise, work on improving your technique and increasing endurance. Slowly build up to swimming 30 minutes at a time.

You can take swimming lessons if you can’t swim or you’re not confident about your swimming abilities. There are a variety of adult swimming lessons available. It’s never too late! Swimming is valuable life skill that can save a life; and it can open up a whole new world of water-sports.

Be mindful: When swimming, heart rate tends to be lower compared to land-based activities.5657 This means your heart rate may suggest you’re exercising at a lower intensity, when you’re actually working out more vigorously. Therefore, also take perceived exertion (RPE) into account.

Read more: Beginner Guide To Swimming Workouts

Elliptical Machine

Elliptical machines mimic running but eliminate the impact, making it a superb alternative to the treadmill.5859 This non-impact, weight-bearing exercise also feels easier than other workouts.60

Intensity: Exercising on the elliptical results in similar improvements of metabolic and cardiorespiratory fitness as on running the treadmill.61 It also burns just as many calories when exercising at the same perceived intensity (RPE).62

Muscles: The elliptical offers the advantage of being a total body workout. Pushing and pulling the arm handles strengthens the muscles of the upper body including the biceps, triceps, and shoulder muscles. The striding action works the lower body, and balancing the movements of the upper and lower body targets the core muscles.

How: Aim for a faster pace with low resistance for a running-like cardio workout. Crank up to resistance and slow the pace for a more muscle-building workout. Change the resistance and incline to target different parts of your body more, do a steady-state workout, or go all out and do HIIT. On the elliptical the variety is endless.

For an effective workout:

  • Adjust the pace and resistance so you can feel that you’re pushing and pulling through every stride.
  • It’s important to remain focused on maintaining the desired exercise intensity – throughout the workout. This is because the elliptical only goes as fast as you move your arms and legs, which is in contrast to the treadmill where you set the speed and then simply run to keep up with it (or else you fall off!). In other words, you have to purposefully work hard, as opposed to passively keeping up.

Be mindful: Exercising on the elliptical feels easier, which means you may be exercising more vigorously that you think.63 Therefore, also take your heart rate into consideration.

Read more: How to get a great workout on the elliptical

Circuit Training Workouts

Moving quickly from one strength training exercise to the next for a series of 6 or more moves is a great way to get a total body strength and cardio workout; all without actually having to do any recognizable cardio-type exercises.64 So if you hate cardio – circuit-training is for you.

Circuit training has multiple benefits. Being both a cardio and strength workout, circuit training is able to reduce BMI and body fat, while simultaneously increasing lean muscle mass.65 Research shows that it may also improve insulin resistance, cardiometabolic risk factors, and pancreatic function in type 2 diabetes.6667

Intensity: Circuit training is often performed at a brisk pace, with little or no rest between exercises. It’s a high intensity workout. However, you can slow things down and take longer breaks to reduce the intensity.

Muscles: Compound, multi-joint, and full-body exercises work a bunch of muscles simultaneously (such as squats, lunges, push-ups and shoulder presses). This keeps the workout challenging and ensures a total body workout in a very short time.

Where: Circuit training makes for an excellent at-home workout. You can also do group circuit training classes at most gyms or your local CrossFit.

How: Arrange your workout in a push/ pull/ legs sequence (i.e. upper body pushing muscles – chest, shoulders, and triceps / upper body pulling muscles – back and biceps / lower body – thighs, calves and abdominals). Perform each exercise for a specific time or pre-determined number of reps, as preferred.

If you’re following a circuit with high-impact cardio exercises such as burpees and jumping jacks, swap them out for low-impact moves instead (e.g. marching in place, step ups, one leg kicks, stand and box, bear crawl, stepping jacks, and jump-free burpees).

Be mindful: Slow the pace of the workout if you’re not familiar with the moves or struggling to keep up. It is important that you execute each exercise with good form for maximum effectiveness and to avoid injury. That means making the right movements, as well as engaging the right muscles at the right time (e.g. pulling your belly button in towards your spine). No fudging allowed!

Boxing Workouts

Boxing-style workouts are low-impact on the lower body. However, punching a bag does put a fair bit of impact though your hands, wrists, arms and shoulders. This has positive effects on bone strength, as boxing is associated with higher levels of bone density.68

A combination of cardio (you’re constantly moving) and strength training (your punches), it’s a fantastic stress buster and a good way to get fit.

Muscles: Boxing is a total body workout, targeting the core, chest, shoulders, and legs. Every time you hit the bag you have to engage your whole body, to stabilize your body and control your movements.

How: Set a timer and punch for 3 minutes and then rest for 1 minute – just like a real boxer. Keep moving your feet and switching your punches from high to low. Don’t try and make every punch a knockout, as you’ll soon get tired!

Be mindful: Always wear hand wraps and boxing gloves to protect your hands. And never punch with bent wrists or your thumbs tucked inside your fists. Avoid boxing if you have any upper body issues.

Aerobics

Whether you like step, jazz, latin, salsa, funk-fusion, hip-hop, jazz, cardio box, and more – there’s an aerobics class for everyone. Perennially popular, aerobics is about music, movement, and rhythm. It’s fun, motivational, and energetic. Research suggests that aerobics can boost cardiovascular fitness, reduce body fat, improve blood cholesterol, and exert positive effects on mood.697071

Intensity: Workout intensity varies according the class (beginner, intermediate, and advanced). Increasing the pace or adding weights increases the intensity. Raising the height of the step, if you’re doing step aerobics, also makes the class more challenging.

Muscles: Aerobics targets the arms, legs, glutes, core, and back. Some classes add weights, to work the muscles harder and increase workout intensity.

Where: Watch an aerobic exercise video and work out in the comfort and privacy of your home. Alternatively, check out your local gym or studio for low-impact aerobics classes.

How: Grapevines, marching on the spot, squats, half jacks and lunges are all common moves in low-impact aerobics classes. The golden rule of low-impact aerobics is that you always keep one foot on the ground or step.

Be mindful: Generally, aerobics tends be quite suitable for exercisers looking for an effective and demanding, but low-impact workout. Although some aerobics moves involve jumping, many are low-impact. Speak to the instructors who will provide a low impact alternative to make the classes accessible to everyone. There are also classes that are specifically low impact.

Good Bone Health

For a well-rounded cardio routine and good bone health, be sure to incorporate regular weight-bearing exercise into your training program.7273

Weight-bearing exercises are those where you have to work against gravity and are supporting your entire body weight (e.g. walking, running, climbing stairs, and aerobics). Non-weight bearing activities tend to be those where you’re sitting down or floating, such as cycling, swimming, and rowing. These activities put a negligible amount of pressure on your skeleton and do not strengthen the bones.74


Low-impact workouts can be just as effective as high-impact exercise to increase cardiorespiratory fitness, burn calories, and improve overall health. It allows you to get or stay fit without the repeated stress on your joints.

A final note for beginners. Don’t swear off high-impact workouts forever if you’ve just started exercising and absolutely hated it. Build muscle and strengthen your joints with lower-impact exercise. This prepares your body for more strenuous high-impact workouts. You’ll find high-impact exercise easier and it’ll reduce the risk of injury.

Alternatively, include a little high-impact activity into an otherwise low-impact workout. For example, try a run-walk plan that mixes walking with intervals of running, building up to running entirely for 20 minutes.

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