Know Differences Between Low-Intensity & Low-Impact Workouts

“Low-impact” and “low-intensity” are terms that can get thrown around when talking about workouts and can sometimes be confused for each other, even though they mean very specific and different types of movement.

They can overlap and both have a place in your fitness journey, but it’s best to know what type of exercise you’re doing and how they do and don’t benefit you.

Low-intensity workout

These are exercises that get you going without spiking your heart rate or making it difficult to hold a conversation with any fitness buddies you’ve brought along.

Your fitness level defines what “low intensity” means for you, but examples generally include walking, yoga, Zumba, tai chi, leisurely rides on a road or stationary bicycle, stand-up paddle boarding and many others — it can depend on who’s doing the categorizing, with some experts including running and other more vigorous activities.

It’s associated with maintaining a steady heart rate and level of exertion for an extended period, at 50% to 60% of your maximum heart rate and effort. Its many benefits include reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, increasing lung capacity and improving mood and sleep quality.

These workouts are great by themselves or as a “rest day” for higher-intensity workouts. However, they aren’t as effective at strengthening bones and muscle, reducing metabolism or burning fat or calories as high-intensity workouts.

Low-impact workout

Anyone who’s had a joint injury will be familiar with this concept, as low-impact workouts focus on lightening the load on your knees, ankles, hips and elbow, regardless of whether they’re high- or low-intensity.

One foot is always kept on the ground as jumping movements leading to forceful landings and shock absorption are eliminated. Many low-intensity activities are also low-impact; walking, casual cycling and yoga are just a few excellent choices.

Vigorous cycling and swimming, stair or incline climbing, rowing and other moves can be very high-intensity, challenging movements, and many HIIT (high-intensity interval training) routines have been crafted from low-impact movements.

Low-impact exercise is more than just a fix for those recovering from or trying to avoid joint injuries. Its reduced recovery time makes it possible to exercise more frequently and it’s better for developing stability and balance and using your full range of motion.

On the downside, it won’t do as much to increase bone density and it may be more difficult to reach higher-intensity levels of exertion.

Both can play a role

Due to their nature, low-intensity exercises generally have a low impact on joints, but low-impact movements can lead to the elevated heart rate associated with high-intensity exercise. It’s important to understand the difference when considering your fitness goals, physical condition and the best ways for you to keep fit.