If you’re new to working out, you’re just getting back into the game, or you have concerns with joints or injuries, low impact cardio is a safe and effective method of exercise.
Low impact exercise gives you the opportunity to exercise while reducing the stress or pressure on your joints. But be warned — just because it’s low impact doesn’t mean you won’t be sweating!
Below, we’ve curated 5 low impact cardio workouts that will put your cardiovascular and muscular systems to the test. These workouts can also serve as great cross-training options for athletes who want to stay active on recovery days.
The king of joint-friendly exercise, swimming is a great low impact option that still torches calories.
Buoyancy in the water reduces stress on your body by helping to support your weight, but that doesn’t mean it’s a thoughtless workout — swimming incorporates cardio, strength, and flexibility.
Even the basic freestyle stroke engages muscles throughout your upper and lower body — especially your shoulders, triceps, pecs, and quads — as well as your core.
It’s honestly one of the best exercises in the world.
Calories burned: For a 155-pound (70.3-kg) person, 30 minutes of swimming can burn about 216 calories. For a 185-pound (83.9-kg) person, it’s about 252 calories (1).
Walking is hard to beat for simplicity and effectiveness. It’s low impact, so it’s less jarring on your knees than running or jogging. And with a little hustle, you can burn a lot of calories.
What’s more, walking on a surface such as a track or a trail can put even less stress on your joints than walking on concrete.
To increase your speed (and therefore your calorie burn), focus on getting your power from your legs and hips. Keep your abdominals engaged and push the ground behind you to accelerate.
Bending your arms to 90 degrees and keeping them close to your torso will allow you to put extra energy in your lower body, where the muscles are bigger, giving you a bigger metabolic boost.
To keep your calorie burn at its highest, incorporate high intensity interval training by alternating 1–3 minutes of walking at a faster speed with 30–60 seconds of walking at a slower recovery speed (
Calories burned: A 155-pound person walking fast (clocking a 15-minute mile, or a speed of 4 miles per hour or 6.43 km per hour) for 30 minutes will burn about 175 calories, versus about 189 for a 185-pound (83.9-kg) person at the same effort level (1).
Another type of exercise that provides a total-body strength and cardio workout is rowing.
This non-weight-bearing exercise is an effective option for those with joint concerns.
You’ll need access to a rowing machine, so this will most likely be a gym-based workout. Alternatively, rowers are available to purchase at various price points — check out our most recent recommendations for the best rowing machines on the market today.
Keep proper form
- Sit on the rower, bend your knees to strap your feet into the platform, and grab hold of the handlebar. Position your shins vertically, with your upper body slightly bent forward over your legs and your arms straight.
- Pushing through your heels, press your feet against the platform, straightening your legs. Then, with your core engaged, lean your upper body back about 45 degrees and finish your pull by bending your elbows to bring the handle toward your chest.
- To return, reverse the order of the previous steps: straighten your arms, allow your upper body to move forward toward the platform, and, once your hands pass your knees, begin to bend your legs and return to the starting position.
Calories burned: At a moderate pace, a 155-pound person can burn about 252 calories rowing for 30 minutes, while a 185-pound person can burn about 292 (1).
Some people have a lifelong love of riding a bike, but cycling is often the wheelhouse (pun intended) of former runners whose knees can no longer tolerate pounding the pavement.
The reason is clear — cycling offers a similar intensity and adrenaline rush without the stress on the joints that can come with running.
Whether you opt for a stationary ride in a cycling class or on a Peloton or you head out on the road on a traditional bicycle, your muscles, heart, and lungs will sting with delight at the intensity of cycling.
You can start cycling with little investment, especially if you have access to a stationary bike, but if you want to get serious, you’ll need to invest in a little gear (such as a helmet and padded shorts). Most importantly, you’ll want to make sure you’re set up properly.
Finding a bike with the right fit is crucial for comfort and for protecting your joints. Riding with the seat too high, too low, too far forward, or too far back can wreak its own havoc on your joints.
Meet with a professional — you can visit a dedicated bicycle shop or ask your cycling class instructor or a personal trainer to set you up properly at the gym.
At their fullest extension during one single revolution, your knees should still be slightly bent. Your handlebars should be high enough to ensure good posture, allowing you to comfortably reach the handlebars without slouching.
If you’re on a stationary bike, being aerodynamic doesn’t really factor in, so keep the handlebars high. When you are well set up with ideal posture, your muscles and metabolism can reap the benefits.
Calories burned: On a stationary bicycle, a 155-pound person would burn about 252 calories at a moderate pace over 30 minutes, and an 185-pound person would burn around 294 (1).
Adding intensity or intervals can turn that way up.
On a road bike at a moderate intensity, a 155-pound person would burn around 288 calories, while the 185 pound person would burn about 336 (1).
Adding hills or speed to this could bring the calorie-torching intensity way up.
If you want a high calorie burn from an outdoor workout that will make you feel like a kid again, find a pair of roller skates or in-line skates!
Not only will you get a great workout, but skating’s side-to-side motion offers a great counter-stimulus to the muscles and joints of your lower body, which most often move in the front-to-back, or sagittal, plane.
To put it simply: Your legs will work in a totally different way when skating than they do when walking, running, or cycling.
Skating can be a great way to work your glutes, hip abductors, and inner thighs too. A roller skating workout checks many boxes when it comes to both effectiveness and fun.
Calories burned: Skating at a casual intensity — whether roller or in-line — burns about 386 calories for a 155-pound person and 461 calories for a 185-pound person in 30 minutes (1).
If running, jumping, or plyometrics isn’t in the cards for you, don’t think you can’t earn some sweat equity with a more low impact approach.
If you’re restricted for any reason, ensure that you feel strong and stable before moving on to more advanced workouts. No matter your fitness goals, adding low impact cardio exercise to your routine will help you get there — even on the days when you feel a little achy.