There’s no question that high intensity exercise burns mega-calories in minimum time. But when that high intensity comes in the form of running, jumping, and sprinting, you’re only as strong as your weakest link—and for many that means your hips and knees, which are more vulnerable to injury as impact levels rise. “Stress and impact are amplified with high intensity training routines and sudden force can cause damage to joint cushions, tendons, and muscles,” says Nicholas DiNubile, MD, orthopedic surgeon and best-selling author of the FrameWork series of books. “This is especially true as we age, or if you’ve had previous injuries, as your musculoskeletal frame is not as durable or limber."
The good news is you can raise your heart rate and rev your metabolism to burn calories and fry fat without the jarring impact. Here are 10 relatively gentle workouts your joints (and your waistline) will love. Note: Just because a workout is low impact doesn’t mean it’s zero risk. You can further minimize your chances of pulling a muscle or straining a joint by starting your exercise sessions slowly so you can warm up your muscles and lubricate your joints before turning up your efforts.
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These versatile hand-held weights pack a powerful metabolic punch when you start swinging them, so much so that research finds that kettlebell swings—a standard move in kettlebell routines—revs your heart rate enough to burn 12.5 calories per minute, or comparable to what you’d burn out on a jog. Another study found that exercisers who performed a 30-minute kettlebell workout burned as many calories as they did when they power walked on a treadmill on a 4% incline for the same amount of time. And you’re making lean muscle tissue to boot! Get total-body toned with this 8-minute kettlebell workout.
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Cycling—indoors or out—is non-weight bearing and low impact, so you can work up a sweat without stressing your joints. One of the beauties of cycling outdoors is that it’s so invigorating, you can easily burn lots of calories without feeling like you’re working that hard. When researchers had a group of trained cyclists perform two 40 kilometer rides—one indoor and one outdoor—at the same perceived exertion, the riders produced about 25% more power and had heart rates nearly 10 beats per minute higher (so burned more calories) outdoors than indoors even though they didn’t feel like they were working any harder.
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Unless you’re a regular on the crew team, chances are you don’t do much rowing. In which case, you’re missing out on a total body workout that tones your arms, legs, and core, and improves your upper back strength and posture, while burning nearly 500 calories an hour (more if you crank up your effort and row vigorously). Unlike the treadmills, which are almost always taken, the rowing machines also are likely to be open and ready to give you a workout whenever you walk in the gym. Be sure to use proper rowing technique. Power the main part of the stroke with your legs; then pull through with your arms and back to finish the stroke to use maximum muscle and keep your arms from wearing out before you’re done working out.
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Based on Ashtanga Yoga, power yoga is a bigger calorie burner than most practices because you’re in near constant motion. You hold each pose for only a few breaths before flowing into the next, and continue over and over so you’re pressing, pushing, balancing and lifting your body weight nearly constantly. Because you’re engaging every muscle, your heart rate stays elevated throughout the class—and you sweat, especially if the room is heated, a lot—so an hour-long class can burn up to about 300 calories, while also improving your range of motion and building full body strength and balance. This high-intensity interval yoga flow takes 18 minutes and can be done at home.
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LIT Method is the latest hot exercise movement out of Los Angeles, and focuses on low impact training (hence the name). The 50-minute class incorporates rowing (sprints and steady paced bouts), resistance band and mat strength work, and foam rolling mobility exercises to “build you up rather than break you down,” as LIT co-founders and high profile personal trainers Justin Norris and Taylor Gainor like to say. If you can’t make a class, which are extremely limited right now, you can get a LIT KIT, which includes rowing and resistance bands; recovery rolling tools, and instructional videos.
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This gym floor staple gives you the benefits of running without any of the pounding impact. Many of them have ski-pole like arm handles, so you can engage your upper body muscles and amp up your calorie burn while also toning your arms, shoulders, and upper back muscles. As a bonus, the elliptical will build your butt better than fitness walking. In one study that compared elliptical training at various speeds and stride lengths found that every one of them fired up the glute muscles, which are notoriously weak in many adults, better than walking. This fat-burning elliptical workout is actually fun, and takes about 30 minutes to complete.
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Short for total body resistance training, these suspension straps put all your muscles on high alert during traditional body weight exercises like push ups, pull ups, planks and squats. When researchers measured the amount of muscle activity in volunteers performing suspended push ups versus the traditional kind, they found the activity in every major upper body muscle, including the chest, shoulders, and triceps to be significantly higher when the exercise was performed with the straps. If you’ve never used TRX, ask a trainer at the gym to show you the ropes on a few basic moves to bump up your calorie burn. Here's a six-move total-body TRX workout to get you started.
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Water is nearly 800 times denser than air, so while swimming is the ultimate low-impact workout, it’s anything but easy to propel your body from one side of the pool to the other and back. In one head-to-head comparison of the health and fitness benefits of swimming versus walking in 116 sedentary women, researchers found that those who swam three times a week for 6 months lost more weight, improved their body composition, slimmed their hips and waist and improved their cholesterol levels better than those who performed a similar walking program for the same time.
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Strength training is low-impact and important for retaining lean muscle mass and staying strong as you get older, but it doesn’t burn a lot of calories while you’re doing it. You can change that by doing circuit training, which involves alternating between different strength training exercises with no rest between moves. By eliminating the down time, you keep your heart rate up and burn more calories while you build muscle. For the biggest calorie burn, research shows you should aim to use moderate weights (about half the amount of the maximum weight you could lift one time) and lift at a brisk, more explosive—but still controlled—pace. Test out this type of training with Jen Widerstrom's fat-burning dumbbell circuit.
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These dancer-inspired blended workouts incorporate elements of ballet, Pilates, yoga, and mat work. They're low impact, but deceptively intense as you perform a continuous series of leg lifts, plies, bridges, and other sculpting moves often using light hand weights, resistance bands, and/or small weighted balls to add resistance. Research shows that plies and other dance-based lifts and bends can recruit more low body muscle than traditional lower body moves like squats and heel raises. Look for a class that incorporates cardio sequences along with sculpting circuits to maximize your calorie burn. Try this 10-minute workout from Pure Barre to get started.
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