WHAT ARE THE BEST LOW IMPACT EXERCISES FOR WOMEN?
Exercise doesn’t have to leave you sweaty and exhausted. Low impact activity has many fitness benefits – especially for women.
Getting a good workout doesn’t always mean you need intense, high impact cardio moves that leave you drenched in sweat. Low impact exercise has many benefits and can be just as effective at helping you achieve your health and fitness goals.
Low impact exercise is easier on your joints, is a good choice on days when you’re feeling low in energy, and still delivers an improvement in strength, cardiovascular health and mood.
What is low impact exercise?
“Low impact exercise involves fluid motions, causing less force to the body. It includes activities such as walking, yoga, swimming and weight training,” exercise physiologist Lauren Sexton says.
While low impact exercise involves less of the jumping and jarring movements you get during high impact workouts like boxing and running, it can still get your heart pumping just as much if you choose the right kind. Think of swimming or rowing on the rowing machine at the gym really fast – these are both low impact forms of exercise.
What are the benefits of low impact exercise?
Low impact exercise has so many benefits, especially for women. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows only two out of five Aussie women aged 18 and over are sufficiently physically active – which means doing at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Regular exercise plays a key role in weight management, mental wellbeing and reducing the risk of chronic diseases like dementia and heart disease (the top two killers of Aussie women respectively), so it’s important to hit the daily target.
One of the common barriers to getting enough regular exercise for women is a lack of energy, so the gentle nature of low impact exercise makes it more appealing for those who don’t like the idea of vigorous activity. It’s also a good choice for women who haven’t exercised in a long time, Lauren says.
As we age, high impact exercise can become more difficult. You might be dealing with creaky joints, mobility issues or other health issues that make gentler forms of exercise more suitable.
“Low impact exercises can assist in building strength and flexibility, and are likely to result in less muscle soreness, which can put beginners off exercise,” Lauren says. “Low impact exercises are beneficial as they’re a beginning point in starting an exercise program and can [often] be maintained for a longer duration.”
The slower, more gentle nature of yoga, strength training or swimming can also be appealing for women who need to build up their strength and stamina slowly. Low impact exercise is also ideal for people with injuries, joint issues or chronic health conditions, Lauren says.
“In conjunction with pelvic-floor exercise, low impact activity should also be a go-to for women recovering after having a baby, as there may be pelvic-floor dysfunction following the third trimester and childbirth,” she adds.
Here are some of the other key benefits:
Low impact exercises to improve your mood
All physical activity has mood-boosting benefits, regardless of the intensity, and low impact exercise is no exception. This is due to the release of feel-good chemicals, endorphins and serotonin. Research shows that working out can also help your body cope better with stress by reducing your levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine.
You don’t need to sweat profusely to feel the mood-boosting effects of movement. A 2018 study found that even a brisk 10-minute walk can improve the way you feel.
Low impact exercises to boost your bone health
Research shows that low impact strength training, using resistance exercises – which use muscle contraction to resist a force – can help support bone health and reduce your risk of developing the brittle bone condition osteoporosis later in life.
A review of 59 studies suggests that physical activity – in particular mixing up the types of exercise you do and doing resistance exercise – is likely to play a role in the prevention of osteoporosis.
At the gym, Lauren recommends machine-based weight training like the leg press, shoulder press and chest press. For home workouts, great low impact exercises for your bones include using hand and ankle weights, resistance bands, and doing push-ups, squats and lunges.
Lauren stresses that women ideally should do a mix of low impact and high impact exercise in their routine. “Low impact exercises alone don’t provide sufficient loading or stimulus to the bone,” she explains.
If high impact exercise is too jarring on your joints, talk to an exercise physiologist for advice on the best workout for you.
Low impact exercises are easier on your joints
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, women have a higher likelihood of developing joint problems like osteoarthritis, but regular exercise can prevent these issues. Regular exercise is also an important part of treating arthritis as it keeps joints fluid and reduces stiffness.
Low impact cardio is gentler on your joints and this makes it ideal for people with joint issues or any injuries.
“Joint-friendly exercises reduce the load placed through a joint and can assist with muscle strength and endurance,” Lauren says
Lauren’s pick of low impact exercises for joint health include walking, swimming, cycling, hydrotherapy (special exercises you do in a warm-water pool) and using a cross-trainer. Because joint injuries can lead to osteoarthritis, exercising safely is important.
“Load slowly, and listen to your body,” she adds. “The old saying ‘no pain, no gain’ doesn’t apply when it comes to joint health.” Check with a health professional first if you have existing joint issues.
Carrying extra weight can take its toll on your joints. Eligible members can get free access to the Osteoarthritis Healthy Weight for Life program* designed for people suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee and hip joints. The program aims to support HCF members who want to reduce the pain in their joints, improve their mobility or prepare for hip or knee surgery.
Our No-Gap Joints program is also there to help for primary hip and knee replacements. It gives eligible members peace of mind with no out-of-pocket costs^ during and after surgery – from hospital admission through to discharge and post-surgery rehab, with participating private hospitals and clinicians for a limited time.
Low impact workouts to try
Moving your body against the resistance of water is great for improving your heart fitness, muscle strength and endurance, while the buoyancy of the water keeps the impact on joints and bones low.
Get started: Head to a public pool and start slowly, gradually building your speed and distance over time. If you’re not a confident swimmer, enrol in classes at your local aquatic centre.
It’s free, it’s easy and it’s possibly the most accessible low impact exercise you can do. Walking is good for your heart and muscles and supports weight loss.
Walking can also be great for your bones, especially if you pick up some speed. In the famous, large-scale Nurses’ Health study of 60,000 post-menopausal women, those who walked briskly at least four times a week had much lower risk of hip fractures than women who walked at a more leisurely pace. Brisk means you can still talk while walking and are not puffing.
Get started: Lace up your trainers for 30 minutes of walking a day (or three separate stints of 10 minutes). As your fitness improves, increase the speed, distance and gradient (find some hills or stairs to climb), and add hand weights.
3. Weight training
According to Better Health Channel, weight training or resistance training has so many health benefits for women, including strengthening muscles and bones as well as improving joint function, posture, balance and sleep quality. And because it boosts your metabolism, weight training helps you burn kilojoules throughout the day, long after your session. That’s why it’s often recommended for managing the weight gain associated with menopause.
Get started: Join a weights class at your gym, book a session with a personal trainer or get some home weights and follow an online program. It’s important to use correct technique when using weights to avoid injury. “Start with smaller bouts of activity, try 10–15 minutes, five days a week with a long-term goal of achieving five days per week at 30 minutes minimum,” Lauren says. Begin with a weight you can comfortably lift 12 times – and if you don’t have any weights, a can of soup or a filled water bottle can be a good place to start.
Although yoga tends to involve slow, flowing movements, it has so many benefits, including a more positive body image and improved heart health. It also helps lower blood pressure while improving flexibility and muscle strength.
There’s also evidence women who practise yoga regularly experience fewer PMS symptoms, period pain, breast tenderness and bloating while menstruating. For pregnant women, yoga can help ease back pain and strengthen the pelvic floor.
Get started: Join a class at a local yoga studio or gym, and let the teacher know you’re new. There are also many great free online classes on YouTube for every level of experience. Deepen the poses safely as you get fitter.
Like most low impact forms of exercise, Pilates has a focus on muscle strength, balance and flexibility and also improves posture, helps ease stress and improves concentration.
Get started: It’s best to start with a class at a studio or gym where a teacher can guide you safely. There are different kinds of Pilates classes, including mat-based and equipment-based. As you gain confidence try more advanced classes.
Whatever your fitness level or goals are, you will benefit from adding low impact exercises to your routine. Including them will help you mix up the way you work out to keep things interesting – try swimming one week, with yoga and a weights session the next – and keep you moving on days with low energy or joint pain, so that you can be consistent with your exercise routine and see results.
Words by Trudie McConnochie
Published November 2022
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* Must have held hospital cover that covers joint replacement surgery for 2 months, have knee or hip osteoarthritis and a Body Mass Index of 28 and above. Clinical eligibility applies. See hcf.com.au/hwfl
^ Eligible members will need to have HCF hospital cover including primary hip and knee replacements for 12 months (excluding Overseas Visitors Health Cover). Members will be accepted into the program in line with clinical criteria by the participating clinician and hospital on a patient-by-patient basis. Must be admitted at Macquarie University Hospital, East Sydney Private Hospital, Hurstville Private Hospital or Vermont Private Hospital. You must undergo your joint replacement surgery before the proposed trial program end date. The No-Gaps Joint Program is proposed to end on 31 March 2024 at Hurstville Private Hospital, 31 March 2024 at East Sydney Private Hospital, 30 April 2024 at Vermont Private Hospital and 30 September 2024 at Macquarie University Hospital.
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