Finding a physical activity routine that is both enjoyable and challenging isn’t always straightforward, particularly for those new to exercise.

When faced with terms such as ‘high-impact’ and ‘low-impact’, it can also be difficult to know which type of exercise will benefit us the most.

So what types of exercise do these terms actually refer to, and how much of each should we be aiming to do?

What does ‘impact’ mean?

Upon hearing the term ‘impact’, many may initially think of contact sports such as rugby and football.

However, in exercise terminology, impact refers to the force exerted onto bones and joints by a particular physical activity.

Our bodies do benefit from being subjected to high impact activities to an extent: much like our muscles need regular use and exercise to stay strong, so do our bones. But undertaking a lot of high impact exercise on a frequent basis can put strain on our joints, so it’s important to find the right balance.

What does low impact workout mean?

Low impact exercises refer to those activities or movements that do not involve a significant amount of force being exerted on joints. Usually both feet, or at least one foot, stay in contact with the ground most of the time, or the whole body is supported.

What are low impact exercises?

Examples of low impact exercises include:

  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Cycling
  • Walking
  • Gardening

The benefits of low impact exercise

Low impact physical activity can be adapted to suit all levels of fitness. These activities temper the amount of force being applied to the body, and are therefore less jarring to joints, bones and connective tissue.

There are many benefits to low impact exercise, but it has been argued that these activities don’t provide the same aerobic benefits as high impact exercises. However, as researchers from Detroit University have argued, low impact exercises when undertaken regularly enough can be sufficient in improving aerobic fitness. Furthermore, according to NHS Choices, low impact exercise can be just as beneficial to heart health as high impact activities.

These types of exercise might be particularly suitable for older persons, those who are recovering from an injury, or those who have not taken part in exercise activities for a while.

As we get older, our bones and joints do become more susceptible to damage through injury. This is because tissue is not able to regenerate at the same it would in a younger person.

According to the US National Institutes of Health, after the age of 30 physical activity is unlikely to improve bone density, however it does play a crucial role in reducing the rate of natural bone loss, which tends to commence after the age of 35.

If you are adding exercise back into your weekly routine after a break, then it is important to take care. Starting with low impact exercise should help you to build up your fitness levels while also avoiding injuries.

What does high impact exercise mean?

High impact exercises involve more jolting movements. Both feet might be off the ground during the range of motion, essentially resulting in our body weight coming down on our bones and joints when we land.

These can be intense cardiovascular workouts and will typically burn more calories than lower impact exercises.

What are high impact exercises? 

Examples of high impact exercises include:

  • Football
  • Rugby
  • Running
  • Gymnastics
  • Tennis

The benefits of high impact exercise

High impact workouts or physical activity improve cardiovascular fitness while also jolting the skeleton.

For example, walking is a weight bearing exercise that does not put extra strain on joints and is therefore deemed to be low impact. Change the intensity of the exercise to a run and the force experienced by your body is much more significant than what it would experience when just walking.

Putting some stress on bones is thought to help maintain bone density.

A small study published in the Osteoporosis Journal found that sprinting can be effective at improving bone density and is a ‘good stimulus for bone strength’.

Bone building is especially important during our younger years, and high impact workouts may benefit this. For instance, one study, carried out by researchers at the University of Exeter, suggested that playing football can lead to higher amounts of bone acquisition in adolescent males.

In terms of cardiovascular conditioning, high impact sessions are often more intense, thereby creating a higher rate of calorie burn; and may appeal to those looking to lose weight. According to the NHS, short stints of high impact exercise might be enough to aid bone strength.

For beginners though, high intensity exercise plans can be tough to stick to; so it’s generally better to build up to this level of activity.

Over time, performing too much high impact exercise on a regular basis can lead to increased wear and tear on joints, potentially making them more susceptible to injuries and exacerbating conditions like arthritis; so it’s generally advisable not to overdo it.

Which type of exercise should I pick?

For the majority of people, an exercise plan incorporating both high and low impact activities is likely to be the most beneficial.

However, for those who might be susceptible to joint problems or have had injuries in the past, it’s better to err on the side of caution by opting for more low impact exercises.

Low impact vs high impact workout

When it comes to exercise, there is no one-size-fits-all plan to suit everyone. The type of regime you maintain will generally depend on your fitness and ability levels; but your daily schedule, as well as what you want to achieve from exercise, will also be determining factors.

If you enjoy a particular style of exercise and are able to perform it in a safe manner, then it is likely it will be improving your health and fitness rather than hindering it. As suggested by one recent study published in the Journal of Sport Science and Medicine, perhaps the focus of our exercise plan should not be on impact intensity but on enjoyment, so that we’re more likely to stick to it.

In any case, if you are thinking about making changes to the way you exercise it is always a good idea to consult a medical professional first. Your GP will be able to provide practical advice to keep you safe and healthy whilst exercising.