High-Impact and Low-Impact Exercise

high impact and low impact exercise

Back in the heyday of aerobic dance, people often chose between high impact and low-impact exercise classes. Now, with the pandemic encouraging more of us to work out at home, you might need to make that decision for yourself again.

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

High impact exercise involves running and jumping, activities that cause greater impact on joints and on your feet. Low impact involves stepping, walking, and other movements that don’t get your feet pounding against the ground.

High impact exercises include

  • running
  • Cross-Fit
  • calisthenics
  • jumping rope
  • racquetball or tennis
  • hiking

Low impact exercises include

  • swimming
  • walking
  • cycling
  • yoga
  • spinning
  • Pilates

Dancing can go either way — ballet is generally high impact, while that reggaeton dance party can be low-impact. Zumba and other fitness dance classes often provide both high impact and low impact options. Listen for the instructor to mention “modifications.”

What’s good about high impact moves?

While high impact moves are more likely to lead to injury, they also have some real health advantages.

  • High-impact exercise strengthens bones and increases bone density more than low-impact moves. Bones are living tissue, like muscles, and challenging them leads to increases in bone mass.
  • High-impact moves can also be high intensity, getting your heart rate up and burning calories more than more leisurely exercise. However, low-impact exercise can also be high intensity — see more on that below.
  • These kinds of exercise can also strengthen joints by building up the muscles around the joints.

Start out slow if you haven’t done much high-impact movement before, or mix up high-impact and low-impact exercises. Gradually increase the length and intensity of your workouts to avoid injury.

But high-impact exercise doesn’t always lead to injury. Unless you have arthritis or other conditions that tell you to slow down, you can confidently take up running and other high-impact activities. Research shows that running is not associated with greater rates of arthritis later in life. 

Low impact can be high intensity

Low impact exercise typically means that you don’t lift both feet off the floor at once. In the case of swimming or elliptical training, you might not lift your feet off the floor at all. 

But that doesn’t mean that low-impact exercise can’t give you a high-intensity workout. Swimming and spinning can be done at a leisurely pace, but they can also be fast and challenging. Yoga and Pilates can be challenging workouts, and weight training can also get your heart rate up without jarring your joints. 

Use your heart rate as a guide to the intensity of your workout. HIIT workouts, or high intensity interval training, alternate bursts of high intensity exercise (at 80% heart rate) with lower intensity cool-down movements. These workouts can be designed with low impact movements.

Or you might enjoy intense but low-impact workouts like rock climbing and mountain biking.


If you’re not sure what kind of exercise is best for you, talk with your doctor. A mixture of both might be just right.