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Low Impact Cardio: 7 Effective And Joint-Friendly Workouts

By Elly McGuinness
Published: October 1, 2021
Key Takeaways

Cardiovascular training is a crucial component of any health and fitness program, but it can be challenging for some due to the impact — here are a few low-impact options to consider.

Source: Ridofranz/iStock

Cardiovascular training is a crucial component of any health and fitness program. There are numerous ways to train and improve this aspect of fitness, and it’s certainly not limited to high-impact exercise such as running and jumping. A great cardio training program considers a person’s goals, preferences, health status, and physical limitations. In this article, we’ll explore some of the best low-impact cardio options for joint-friendly cardiovascular health.

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The importance of cardiovascular exercise

The main goal of cardio training is to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, also referred to as aerobic fitness. A person’s cardio fitness is an indication of how well they can transport and use oxygen in the body. Essentially, aerobic or cardio fitness could also be called “heart and lung fitness,” and it is linked to numerous aspects of a person’s health.

Another way to think of cardio exercise is as exercise that gets you "huffing and puffing." It’s the type of exercise that really gets your heart rate going, and it doesn’t necessarily require high impact or even weight-bearing activity. Rather, it’s more about finding the right intensity level for the individual. Intensity is basically how hard you are working. Perceived intensity or perceived exertion is about how hard you feel you’re working. Intensity can be adjusted whether you’re doing a high-impact or low-impact workout.

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Best joint-friendly low impact cardio workouts

Most forms of exercise involve some degree of input from the cardiovascular system. However, there are certain types of exercise that focus specifically on this component of fitness. For example, resistance training and some forms of yoga both utilize the cardiovascular system to some extent. However, cardiorespiratory fitness isn’t usually the primary goal for training types like these.

The following fitness options are some of the best choices for cardio training. They’re great calorie burners that improve cardiovascular fitness whilst minimizing stress on the musculoskeletal system.

Swimming

Swimming is considered to be one of the least stressful cardiovascular activities for the joints. Not only is it low-impact in nature, it is also a non-weight-bearing form of exercise. However, this doesn’t mean that it needs to be low intensity, or that it's easy! Swimming can be very effective for improving cardiovascular health and it provides a great full-body workout. Try different strokes, and adjust your intensity with sprint efforts or long slow distance swims, as per your goals and fitness level.

Cycling

Also low-impact and non-weight bearing in nature, cycling is another great cardiovascular fitness choice. Whether it’s mountain biking, road biking, or riding a stationary bike at home or the gym, cycling offers a great lower body workout with a cardiovascular focus. Increase your intensity with hill training or high-intensity intervals.

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Walking

Walking is a superb cardiovascular training option. It doesn’t require any special equipment or facility, and it can be done almost anywhere. It’s a weight-bearing activity that can help promote healthy bones as well as better heart and lung fitness. Walking can be done on pavement or on a treadmill, or even out in nature on a hiking trail. Try adjusting speed and incline to find the optimal intensity level.

You can also increase the amount of walking you’re doing without making it a planned exercise session. Simply walk more instead of driving, or park your car a set distance from your destination and walk the rest of the way. A few small bursts of walking can add up throughout the course of your day.

Elliptical training

The elliptical trainer is a great choice for a full-body cardio workout that’s easy on the joints. If you find that walking is challenging on your joints, try the elliptical trainer for an alternative. Found in most gyms and also a worthwhile consideration as an addition to a home gym setup, the elliptical trainer works both the upper and lower body. Try focusing on the pushing action for emphasis on the triceps muscles, or pulling for emphasis on the biceps. You can also focus solely on the legs with this piece of equipment, if you have particular challenges or mobility limitations with your arms.

Rowing

You don’t need an actual rowboat to try rowing! Another common piece of cardio training equipment in a gym or home gym is a rowing machine, which can offer an incredible full-body workout that has the potential to be very high in intensity if you choose. Done well, just a minute or two on a rowing machine can really challenge your cardiovascular fitness and work your muscles hard.

It’s important to practice great technique with all forms of exercise, and optimal rowing technique can take a little bit of time to learn. Most of the drive comes from the powerful leg muscles. Ask a qualified fitness trainer to help you with your technique if you’re unsure whether you're doing it correctly.

Stair climbing

The stair-climber is another common piece of cardio equipment that can be found in a gym or used in a home gym. However, you don’t need to have or use a stair-climbing machine to reap the cardiovascular and muscular benefits of this fitness activity. Simply find a stairwell and start with however many flights is a good match for your current fitness level. Gradually progress as your fitness level allows. To increase the level of incidental exercise in your lifestyle, take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible.

Low impact exercise classes

There are several types of group fitness classes that focus on low-impact cardio exercise or at least give you the option to choose between high and low-impact training. Group exercise options may be available for the exercise modes we’ve already covered. Other types of low-impact cardio workouts can include dance and boxing-style exercise sessions. Just check with the instructor that there will be low-impact options or alternatives provided throughout the class.

More than ever, there are numerous online options for low-impact cardio workouts, and they often bill themselves as such. Apps and other online training platforms can usually cater to a wide range of fitness abilities and preferences.

In Summary: Low-impact cardiovascular workouts

In short, there are numerous low-impact workouts available that are incredible for improving cardiovascular fitness. It’s important to find something that’s a good fit for your personal health and fitness status, and that is in line with your goals. Most of all, it should be something you enjoy doing!

There are several additional low-impact cardio options you might like to try. Again, depending on the factors mentioned above, and the resources you have available, here are a few bonus suggestions:

  • Snowshoeing or cross-country skiing
  • Rollerblading
  • Kayaking
  • Aqua aerobics or aqua jogging.

[Find out more about helping your employees to improve their fitness in “A step-by-step guide to helping employees set personal wellness goals” and “How to kick off a workplace fitness challenge and why it’s important”].

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Written by Elly McGuinness

Profile Picture of Elly McGuinness

Elly has been inspiring people to make sustainable changes to their health, fitness and lifestyle for the past 15 years. She offers online solutions for people who are looking to get started on, or improve their health and fitness. She blogs regularly, writes for a number of health and well-being publications and is the published author of a holistic weight loss book.

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