Benefits of Low-Impact Exercise

Go easy on your joints, but still feel the burn.

In order to get the 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you don’t need to be Jane Fonda circa 1985. Low-impact aerobic exercise can effectively improve your health.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, moderate aerobic exercise can help lower your LDL (or bad cholesterol) levels, reduce blood pressure and triglycerides, improve your heart and lung function, and help you lose weight. Elevating the heart rate for at least 20 minutes is generally the length of time experts say is necessary to improve cardiovascular strength and burn excess calories.

You’ll want to reach your target heart rate zone—between 60 and 75 percent of your maximum heart rate—to get the most cardiovascular benefits. According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, you can determine your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. To find your target zone, multiply that number by 0.6 to find the lower limit and by 0.75 to find your upper limit.

Walking, swimming, biking and yoga are all great examples of low-impact exercises. In some cases, they even assist the healing and recovery of damaged joints. But don’t confuse low impact with low intensity; you’ll still want to be moving enough to reach your target heart rate. When it comes to choosing a low-impact aerobic activity, the most important thing is to find something you’ll actually enjoy doing enough to stick with. Here are some of the benefits of various low-impact activities.

Walking: Taking a good, brisk walk of two to three miles at a time is gentle on the back and good for general conditioning. Make sure you have a good pair of shoes suitable for going the distance.

Stationary bike: Biking or spinning classes have grown in popularity over the years as people have realized the aerobic benefits of this cardio activity that can work up a serious sweat without taking the toll on joints that running can. Even those with back problems can benefit from biking, using one of the many recumbent bikes on the market.

Cross-training machines: Elliptical trainers, step machines, and other machines that work all your limbs in one fluid motion have the additional benefit of providing strength training as well, by increasing your resistance level. The arms of most cross-training machines can be pushed and pulled, working your upper body and lower body simultaneously.

Swimming and water aerobics: Doctors often recommend so-called “water therapy” for people with back problems or who are carrying additional weight, because the buoyancy of water counteracts the gravity that can compress the spine. Without having to battle gravity, you’ll be more mobile, and strengthening exercises are less painful.

Yoga and tai chi: Studies on the effects of yoga and tai chi on cholesterol levels have had varied results. (For one thing, there are so many varieties of yoga these days and lower intensity yoga classes may not push you to your target heart rate.) But both are good for flexibility and conditioning, and certainly for getting your moment of Zen.

Whatever type of exercise you choose, begin and end your workout with light activity, stretching well after exercising, drinking plenty of water throughout the day and during your workouts, and starting slow to avoid injury.