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Gustav Restau - Independent Lifeplus Associate

Balancing high and low impact exercise

Reading Time: 4 minutes

We all know that regular exercise is beneficial for our health and wellbeing, but some types of exercise may not seem right for you if you’ve suffered from injuries or have other health conditions. Broadly, exercise can be broken down into two camps – high impact and low impact.

There are pros and cons of each and it may seem like a never-ending conflict between them, but by re-assessing your exercise needs and priorities, you could achieve a better balance for your health.

So what’s the difference between the two?

High impact exercise

Exercises regarded as high impact include running, football, rugby, hiking, tennis, dancing or high impact aerobics. These activities are described as high impact as they tend to be more intense and vigorous, and the jolting movements involved in running or football, for example, can have a bigger impact on your body and bones. Research suggests that high impact exercise is involved in helping to increase your bone density, but only if you get the right amount.1

Too much high impact sport can have more of a detrimental effect, putting your bones under excess strain and potentially even wearing them down. There’s also the risk that high impact exercise could lead to an impact injury, such as spraining your ankle or tearing cartilage in your leg. 

Low impact exercise

Low impact exercise doesn’t put your joints under so much stress, so it can be a better option if you’ve suffered any bone or joint injuries, are new to exercise, have mobility issues or have other chronic health problems that affect your ability to exercise.2

Exercises such as walking, cycling, swimming, yoga or pilates are all considered to be low impact, as they don’t put excessive strain on your lower body joints. Research suggests that doing a moderate amount of low impact exercise on a regular basis can be as effective as high impact exercise in terms of the benefits it has on your heart and lowering the risk of heart disease.3

But in terms of your bone health, some studies have found that only doing low impact exercise might not provide your bones with the stimulus they need to stay healthy and strong. So it’s a bit of a “no-win situation” – how do you get the balance right?

Finding the balance

Your bone health improves, and your bones get stronger, when they’re used, which is one reason why exercise is important to help keep your bones in good condition.

Firstly, if you’ve not exercised for a while, or have had specific injuries, then it’s always important to consult your doctor first before trying anything new, to ensure the type of exercise you’re considering is right for you.

One method you might like to consider to try and gain the best of both worlds, whilst also taking care of your body, is to have a go at cross training. This involves alternating between high and low impact exercises, so you get the benefits of both forms. It can help you to strengthen muscles that you perhaps don’t use so much and help correct imbalances. For example, if you normally tend to focus on running, whilst it’s good for your lower leg muscles, it may be doing little for your upper body.

Cross-training won’t completely prevent the chance of unwanted injuries, but it can help to decrease the risk of it. In addition, it provides a source of variety to your exercise and fitness routine, so you’re not stuck doing the same thing all the time. Trying something different can break up any monotony and you may even find you develop a passion for it.

Cross-training ideas

If you want to incorporate cross-training into your fitness regime, you can either opt for alternate sessions of each or mix things up a bit. This means adding elements of high impact or weight bearing activities into lower impact exercises, or vice versa. For example, you could carry weights as you walk, or swap traditional cycling with using a cross trainer or static exercise bike.

Some ideas of cross-training exercises to consider include:

• Water aerobics. Water is wonderfully buoyant and is great if you’re looking for an approach that helps strengthen and stretch your muscles without pain. Being in the water can add a new dimension to exercising and helps minimise the stress your body can be under when doing high impact aerobics.

• Aqua jogging. Like water aerobics, jogging in water can be a great cross-training approach. Your legs won’t be under as much pressure as running on a hard surface, but you’ll need to work harder in the water. If you’re trying this for the first time, you may benefit from using a pool running floatation belt, as this will help keep your posture in the correct position. 

• Golf. This might seem an unusual choice, but think of all the walking, along with the upper body exercise, involved in golfing. Carrying a weighty bag of golf clubs around the course can be exercise in its own right too!

Zumba. This popular exercise is a good option if you’re keen to work on your cardio and muscle strengthening. Although viewed by many as aerobic, it can be as intense as you want it to be. Plus, it’s lively, social and great fun to try.

Bikram yoga (sometimes known as hot yoga), this approach involves doing yoga in a hot environment. It was originally designed to help recovery from sports injuries, and can help improve your circulation as well as strengthen your muscles.

These are just a few suggestions, and not all of them are for everybody, but take some time to research for yourself and you’ll see that there’s any number of activities you can try to strike the right balance.

If you’re recovering from an injury, then don’t forget to bear in mind that lifting and carrying things aids your bones too. Many people take advantage of this through activities such as weight training, but thankfully you don’t necessarily have to lift huge weights or barbells to gain benefits. In fact, everyday tasks such as doing your housework, gardening or carrying bags of shopping home will all help your bones in their own way.

Above all, have fun and enjoy exercising! If you love what you do, you’ll be more motivated to continue to keep fit and help keep your bones healthy.

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