The Low-Impact Cardio Benefits, Plus a Low-Impact Cardio Workout

PSA: Low-impact cardio isn’t just for people with bad knees.

While running may appear to be the ultimate cardio exercise, given the obvious signs of strenuous effort like breathlessness and soaked t-shirts, it isn't necessarily the best choice for everyone, states Brianna Bernard, an Isopure Athlete and certified personal trainer. She notes that the most effective form of cardio is one that you can commit to daily and is suitable for your body's needs. If running isn't enjoyable or causes knee pain, it shouldn't be forced upon oneself. Instead, seeking an alternative, such as low-impact cardio, could be the solution. This type of exercise gets your heart rate up without causing joint discomfort. In this discussion, Bernard elaborates on why low-impact cardio can be an advantageous part of your exercise regimen even if you're not prone to injuries. She also provides instructions on how to adapt her favorite low-impact exercises into a potent workout routine.

The Benefits of Low-Impact Cardio

Cardiorespiratory or cardio workouts are fundamentally about strengthening your heart and lungs, explains Melissa Kendter, a trainer specializing in functional training who is also an ACE-certified Tone & Sculpt coach. Cardio exercises work by enhancing your heartbeat rate, stimulating blood flow, and improving the efficiency of your lungs and heart in delivering oxygen to your muscles. This helps in building stamina and not getting easily tired during intense activities. It's effective for boosting heart health and torching calories, adds Bernard. However, some common high-impact cardio exercises like running, box jumps, burpees, etc., place significant strain on your feet and joints. While some people might handle this well, others could find it challenging. "The impact can be really detrimental for your knees, joints, lower back", states Bernard. "Anyone struggling with foot or arch problems, such as plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendon injuries, or others, may find high-impact cardio worsening their conditions or leading to new ones." Low-impact cardio exercises are a gentler alternative that doesn't stress the knees, joints, lower back, or feet but still provides a robust cardiorespiratory workout. Both the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocate for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week for maximum health benefits. The intensity of your workout can be measured using the talk test: If you can hold a conversation but cannot sing, you're working out at a moderate intensity. If you can barely speak a few words, you're working out at a vigorous intensity, suggests Mayo Clinic. Bernard encourages incorporating cardio exercises into each workout session, whether it's three times, five times, or more each week. It's worth mentioning that she also recommends including strength-training moves in every workout to gain other major health benefits like increased bone strength and reduced injury risk.

Types of Low-Impact Cardio Exercises

Jump-Free Plyometric Moves

Training in plyometrics involves dynamic movements that can bolster your power and muscular strength, such as speed skaters, jump squats, and other activities with a strong hopping component. However, these routines don't necessarily need to be high-impact. Low-impact plyometric exercises like medicine ball slams, wall balls, box step-ups, and wave-making with battle ropes, which are Bernard's go-to choices, can also aid you in building explosive strength and power.

"These plyometric activities may not be viewed as typical cardio workouts because you wouldn't perform them at a steady state for a 30-minute duration like when you run or cycle," she elaborates. "Nevertheless, they do elevate your heart rate and possess more of an element of high-intensity interval training." Essentially, low-impact cardiovascular exercises can still form part of your HIIT routine. (So, consider this as further incentive to finally invest in some battle ropes for your personal gym.)

Modified Bodyweight Moves

Mountain climbers and burpees are effective whole-body exercises that also enhance your heart rate. However, for some people, they could be highly impactful, states Bernard. In these situations, she suggests executing the movements at a slower rhythm, alternating feet instead of jumping. "The action is devoid of any impact — there's no leaping or explosive component," Bernard mentions. "[During burpees], you simply bend down to touch the ground, position your hands on the floor, step back with your right foot, then left foot, step forward individually with each foot, stand up, and continue the cycle. It's an identical movement but without any impact." For mountain climbers too, instead of propelling your feet towards your chest as if sprinting, you merely tap your toe at the peak, reverse it back, and switch to the other side, she explains. "It eliminates any leaps and potential harm to your feet and knees, making it a more inclusive activity for everyone," she adds. Though the pace is slower, these low-impact cardio exercises will still elevate your heart rate — in fact, they may seem even tougher in certain aspects, Bernard claims. "Those muscles have to concentrate intently on each movement, and if you gradually bring your foot forward, you'll sense it more in your core and your hip flexors will engage more," she elucidates. "In a sense, it's potentially a superior workout." (If you're ready for a challenge, attempt this 100-burpee EMOM workout.)

Speed Boxing

Letting off steam at the end of a hectic day by hitting the bag is undeniably a great way to channelize your energy and push your strength. However, if you're on the lookout for a cardio alternative with lower impact, speed boxing could be your answer. "Compared to power punches and kicks, striking for speed results in lesser impact," says Bernard. "I often get my clients to do speed rounds where they merely tap [the bag], thus avoiding any heavy impact. This method effectively elevates the heart rate without causing any jarring movements to your wrists or knees." Furthermore, you could even opt to forgo the bag and punch into thin air in front of you to completely eliminate impact, she suggests. Source

How to Add Low-Impact Cardio to Your Workouts

Unsure of how to seamlessly integrate low-impact cardio exercises into your workout plan? Consider the advice of Bernard, who suggests infusing these exercises within a circuit workout routine. This can be accomplished by alternating between 30 seconds of cardio and an equivalent duration of strength-training movements. The latter provides a period of recovery preceding the subsequent cardio exercise. However, given that there's no complete rest between transitions, your heart rate predominantly remains elevated, thereby facilitating a higher calorie burn. To create this circuit workout, select two low-impact cardio moves. Some examples include medicine ball slams, wall balls, box step-ups, battle rope waves, modified mountain climbers, burpees and speed punches. Combine these with two strength-training exercises you're comfortable with. You could opt for dumbbell squats, chest presses, bicep curls, push-ups or bodyweight walking lunges. Within the circuit, alternate between the selected cardio and strength exercises, dedicating 30 seconds to each for three rounds. The number of circuits you perform hinges on the amount of time you have available for your workout, according to Bernard.

Low-Impact Cardio Circuit Workout

Embarking on a fitness journey on your own can seem daunting, but there's no need to worry. This low-impact cardio workout includes some of Bernard's top choices for exercise routines. Here's how it operates: Each activity in the circuit should be performed for a duration of 30 seconds. After a complete round, take a breather for 30 to 90 seconds, then go through the circuit twice more. The same method applies to subsequent circuits. Essential equipment for this workout would be a pair of medium-sized dumbbells (Buy It, $35, and a medicine ball (Buy It, $32,

Circuit 1

Engage your core and commence in a plank position, keeping shoulders aligned over wrists, fingers wide apart, with hip-width between feet. Make sure your body forms a direct line from your shoulders to ankles. Maintain a flat back and stare at the gap between your hands while raising one foot off the floor, bringing your knee to your chest. Resume foot to starting point and repeat on the other side. Keep alternating knees for 30 seconds.

Pick up a dumbbell and stand upright with feet shoulder-width apart. Ensure the dumbbell is held in both hands, in front of the chest, and elbows pointed downwards. While maintaining an erect chest and tight core, slowly descend into a squat - pushing your hips backwards as if you're about to sit on a chair. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground, taking care not to let your knees cave inwards. Upon standing back up, press your feet firmly into the ground. Repeat this exercise for 30 seconds.

Hold a medicine ball and position yourself with feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Swiftly lift the ball above your head and slam it to the floor by guiding the ball downward with force. As you do so, follow the ball with your body but avoid bending at the waist. End up in a squatting position with your head up, chest and behind low. Catch the ball on its first bounce and thrust upwards, driving the ball overhead, fully extending your body and arms. Repeat this routine for 30 seconds.

Begin this routine in a plank position with your hands directly underneath your shoulders and legs spread out, feet hip-width apart. Engage your core by tucking in your tailbone and drawing your belly button towards your spine. Switch on your lats by pulling your shoulders down and away from your ears. Engage your glutes and quads. Push your elbows out in such a way that your arms form a 45-degree angle with your body. Keep your neck neutral by looking down and slowly lower your body, halting 3 inches above the floor. Your core must be engaged throughout this routine, ensuring your body forms a straight line from head to toe. Swiftly push back up to start and repeat for 30 seconds.

Circuit 2

Get into a standing position, ensuring your feet are at shoulder distance and your arms rest by your sides. Now squat down, with your hips pushing back and your knees bent. Place your hands directly in front of your feet, inside them slightly, and shift your body weight onto your hands. Extend your feet back to establish a plank posture, maintaining a straight line from your head to heels. Be mindful not to let your back sag or your buttocks thrust up. Optionally, you can lower your body for a push-up or completely to the ground while engaging your core. Push your body up off the floor to return to the plank. Bring your feet forward, landing just outside your hands. Raise your arms overhead and stand up explosively, immediately squatting down for the next repetition.

Assume a standing stance with your feet hip-width apart and engage your core. Brace your core and advance your right foot significantly forward, lowering until both knees form angles of 90 degrees. Push off with your rear foot and press your front foot down to stand, balancing your weight over both feet. Squeeze your glutes at the top. Take a significant left-foot step forward to prepare for the next repetition on the opposite side.

Starting from a boxing position, have your left foot forward, your fists guarding your face, and your elbows pulled in. Stay on the balls of your feet, bending your knees and shifting your weight quickly from one foot to the other. At the same time, throw jabs with your left arm and crosses with your right. Repeat this sequence.

Standing with your feet at shoulder-width, hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing forward. Your arms should be straightened and in a neutral grip. Tuck in your ribs to brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and bring your elbows tight against your sides. Engage your biceps to pull both dumbbells towards their respective shoulders, stopping just before your wrists touch your shoulders. Pause for a moment, then lower the dumbbells back down to your sides with control. Repeat this sequence.

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