What is the difference between high impact, low impact, and no impact exercise?
When done properly, both high and low impact types of exercise are excellent for helping you get your body into shape. In this case, “impact” refers to the action of one object coming into contact with the other—on the body. High impact workouts come into contact with the floor, equipment, etc. harder and more often. Low impact workouts come into contact with very little. There are also “no impact” activities, like swimming, that may not come into contact at all.
Exercise can be broken down into two main categories: high impact and low impact. Which one is better? Generally speaking, the question is not what will make you the fittest—in fact, a combination of both high and low impact movement is often best—but what is most appropriate for you. To determine the answer, let’s look at the differences between the two types of exercise:
High Impact: Faster Results, Harder on the Body
High impact workouts are defined as those that move both feet off the ground at the same time. Examples include cross training—such as jumping off plyo boxes or doing burpees—running, jumping jacks, or knee-highs. Popular high intensity training programs include CrossFit, Insanity, and P90X.
Low Impact: Slower Results, Easier on the Body
Low impact workouts are the ones that require you to leave at least one foot off the ground. Examples include cycling, cardio on the elliptical machine, hiking, yoga, Pilates, and dancing. Because there is less impact, these exercises tend to be gentler on the joints and muscles.
Why/when should you do High Impact Exercise?
You Want to Lose Weight Quickly — High impact activities inherently require more energy, and therefore calories, to be burned. Think of high impact as the most “bang for the buck” when it comes to exercise. You’ll be able to burn more calories in a shorter amount of time, so it’s ideal for those aiming for fast weight loss.
You Want a Tougher Challenge —In general, high impact activities tend to be more intense, so they’re not for the faint of heart and often aren’t the best choice for beginners. However, if your goal is to condition your body to be in the best possible shape—and you aren’t afraid to push really hard to get there—then going high impact may help you get better results in a shorter time period.
You're Training for Competition — Whether it is a boxing match, a marathon, or a fitness competition, high intensity exercises will help ready you for the big match-up. The fact is that these exercises are all-around more efficient, so they’re generally better for any application where there’s a deadline.
You want to Improve Bone Density — Studies show that, though it sounds counter-intuitive, high impact activity is good for your bones. In fact, scientists have found that regularly subjecting the bones to abrupt stress helps them grow and strengthen. If you’re older and not at risk of injury or simply want to boost your bone density, then signing up for some high impact exercises is a great idea.
You're at a Low Risk for Injury — High impact exercise is generally harder on the body and is more likely to cause orthopedic injury. The harder, more consistent impact effectively puts more strain on the body’s joints, muscles, and tendons, so this type of exercise is generally not recommended for anyone who’s at a higher injury risk. This includes the elderly, pregnant women, and those with certain bone disorders.
Why/when should you do Low Impact Exercise?
You're Injured and Recovering — If you’re trying to stay off of a particular joint or muscle that has been troublesome for you in the past, it’s best to keep things low impact. This is especially true if you have suffered from an orthopedic injury in the past or have undergone a joint replacement surgery. Keeping the impact low will help you recover faster so you can get back to high impact activity with time.
You prefer to Go Easy on the Joints — If you’ve ever come away from the treadmill or trail with sore joints, you may be putting too much stress on your body. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should cut out the high impact training altogether, but that you should pepper in more low impact exercises to give your joints a break.
To Improve Alignment and Balance — Often, low impact workouts focus more on strength, stretching, balance, and alignment than burning calories and building power. Low impact exercises, such as Pilates and yoga, can do wonders for improving your balance and alignment.
To Take a Break from Cardio — Just because it’s low impact doesn’t mean it’s easy. You can still get your heart rate up and enjoy big calorie burns without going high impact. Consider intense low impact exercises, like boxing with a trainer, rowing, or strength training. It’s not a bad idea to change things up from regular high impact cardio to intense low impact exercise every so often.
Your Best Bet? Ask a Professional
By and large, all physical activity is good physical activity, so long as it’s done properly and it doesn’t subject your body to needless stress. When designing your personal workout regimen, it’s always a good idea to speak with a professional, such as a coach, a trainer, or your physician. He or she will be able to advise you on which type of movement is best for you based on your unique fitness goals and your medical history. Remember that exercise is not a one-size-fits-all game, and individual consideration must be taken from one athlete to the next.
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For more tips on achieving your fitness goals, we recommend these articles: Spring Into Fitnes: Renew Your Fitness Goals, Get Fit in the Gym, Lose Weight in the Kitchen, HIIT Training: From Fad to Fact, It's Not About Getting Skinny, Top Ten Reasons to Try Indoor Rowing, How to Choose a Personal Trainer.
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Albert Guardado Jr. is a retired boxer and current Product Support Supervisor for combat Brands. Albert oversees the product portfolio for all three branches of Combat Brands. He was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team (Atlanta, GA) and former member of USA Boxing’s Board of Directors. Albert is a three-time USA Boxing National Champion, as well as the 1992 National P.A.L. Champion. He also medaled in the 1993 World Championships, 1994 Goodwill Games and 1995 Pan-American Games. Albert continues to share his extensive boxing knowledge by coaching, blogging and assisting with tournament administration at events supported by Combat Brands.