High Impact Vs Low Impact Exercise–What’s The Difference?




We all know that eating the wrong kinds of food can be unhealthy, but what about the wrong kind of exercise?  While there is no “gold standard” for determining if an exercise is high-impact or low-impact, knowing the difference between the two can make a tremendous difference in using them correctly to strengthen your body.


Mention the words high impact and it immediately brings to mind a head-on car crash–or, in the event of the body, football players colliding head-on.  But high-impact exercise also encompasses athletic events that have much less person-to-person contact, such as the jolting and jarring motions involved in running.  Every time your foot hits the ground when you run you’re putting 2.5x your body weight through your lower extremities.  While there are some research studies out there that suggest that the right amount of high-impact exercise can increase bone density (since we know that bones respond to a certain amount of stress in order to get stronger), other studies have indicated that too much impact can place excessive strain on the body and may even wear down bones, muscles, and joints over time, potentially leading to severe degenerative changes down the road.


On the flip side is the less intense, low-impact exercises such as swimming, yoga, or using the elliptical machine.  These exercises all put less stress and strain (and ultimately less forces) on your bones, muscles, and joints, thus decreasing your risk of injury.  But whereas high-impact exercises can cause too much force, low impact exercises run the risk of not providing enough stimulation to get bones and muscles stronger.  Now keep in mind that individuals who are recovering from injury or who have joint damage would do well to stick with low-impact exercises in order to remain active and stay healthy.  But low-impact exercises by no means suggests less of a workout…I’ve sent entire basketball, soccer, and cross-country teams I have coached to yoga class, which entirely wiped some of them out physically!




Now you may be thinking “what type of high-impact and low-impact exercises can you combine to create a great workout?”

  • High-impact exercise usually involves more direct force on the body, including everything from contact sports such as football to individual sports like running and gymnastics, as well as exercises like jumping rope.  Just keep in mind that too much high-impact exercise may place excessive strain on the body and may even lead to repetitive stress injuries






  • Low-impact exercise, such as swimming, yoga, cycling, and the elliptical machine provide diminished direct force on the body, thus potentially reducing the risk of injury.




So what’s the takeaway?  What’s the best way to balance workouts for optimal impact overall?  While my initial answer would say “it depends on individual needs,” cross-training is often a great solution, alternating both high-impact and low-impact exercises instead of strictly focusing on one discipline.  The best way to get into cross-training is to start by alternating each workout day with high- and low-impact exercises.  Look into gradually easing a couple of exercises from the other side into a workout week, depending on what the usual training plan looks like.  Just keep in mind that cross-training will not prevent injuries (and you must use correct form for each exercise or you will increase your risk of injury from that aspect, but that’s a whole new blog post topic!).

The bottom line is to have fun creating a middle ground using the best of both workout worlds!  So instead of just yoga, how about yoga with weights?  How about trying Zumba instead of the treadmill?  And maybe consider trying your hand at jiu jitsu instead of swimming laps.

And as always, if you or someone you know needs some guidance in how to start an exercise program, progress one to stay active, or just where to begin to get physical activity into your daily routine, call me at (302)691-9055 or visit my website at www.wildermanphysicaltherapy.com to schedule your FREE 30 minute Discovery Visit to see how Physical Therapy can help. Don’t delay–schedule now!