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Low-Impact Exercise

High impact on fitness?

In my experience, when people hear the phrase “low-impact exercise,” there tend to be two responses: either they have no clue what it means, or they think it’s just for seniors or people who are very deconditioned. But there are many people, especially some living with diabetes, who might benefit not only from knowing about low-impact exercise, but also from trying it.

“Low-impact exercise refers to activities that are joint-friendly,” says Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise®. Because one foot is on the ground at all times during standing activities, “it puts minimal stress on joints such as the ankles, knees, and hips. Low-impact exercise doesn’t involve jumping or running. Walking is a good example of low-impact.” Also included in the low-impact category are activities such as cycling and swimming, in which your body weight is supported by equipment or water, so there’s actually no impact.

Getting started getting fit has benefits, and there may be less risk of injury with low-impact activities, but always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Here’s a roundup of low-impact workouts to try:


It’s the most popular form of exercise. Not surprising, since it’s accessible to practically everyone, doesn’t cost anything, and you can do it almost anywhere, anytime. Learn more about getting started here.

What you need: Pair of sneakers

Type of workout: Cardio

Muscles worked: Mostly lower body

Getting started advice: Maintain good posture, and you’ll also work the core muscles in your abs and back.


There are so many options: indoor, outdoor, a group spinning class, or solo workouts.

What you need: A bike or access to a stationary bike; padded bike shorts are highly recommended for comfort.  Some spinning classes also require clip-in shoes for their bikes; call ahead to sort out what equipment you will need (and if the studio rents the shoes). Bring a water bottle as well!

Type of workout: Cardio

Muscles worked: Legs

Getting started advice: If you have lower back problems, select a bike that allows you to sit upright or a recumbent style that supports your back. For spinning classes, ensure you arrive early to have an instructor help you adjust the bike to best fit your body for optimal benefits.

Pool workouts

You don’t have to be a strong swimmer to get a great workout in the water. Aqua classes are often held in the shallow end, and even if you venture into the deep, you can often use a floatation device. Other options are walking or running laps in a pool.

What you need: Swimsuit, goggles (if doing laps), and of course, access to a pool.

Type of workout: Cardio and strength (the water provides resistance)

Muscles worked: Total body

Getting started advice: The water cushions your landing, so try higher-impact moves like jumping or running. In a pool, they become low-impact.

Low-impact aerobics

These range from choreographed routines featuring “grapevine” moves and step touches (think Jane Fonda in the ’80s!) and step aerobics to kickboxing and cardio sculpt that combines aerobics and strength training. But these classes have a range of names like Cardio Blast and Cardio Express, and it can be hard to decipher exactly what you’re getting. That’s why it’s important to review class descriptions and speak with the instructor beforehand to better understand which class may be right for you. Read more about getting started at the gym.

What you need: Supportive, flexible sneakers; some classes use equipment, but it’s usually provided.

Type of workout: Cardio and sometimes strength

Muscles worked: Usually total body

Getting started advice: Look for classes described as beginner or level one. Avoid those that mention “plyometrics” or “high-intensity,” which often imply jumping or other high-impact moves. Other low-impact group exercise options include toning or strength classes and ballet-inspired barre classes. These classes often focus on toning arms and legs, rather than a cardio workout.


Dance based workouts like Zumba, hip hop, belly dancing, line dancing, or others are a fun way to get fit, and there are classes for everyone—even if you think you have two-left feet. Learn more about getting started dancing.

What you need: Supportive, flexible sneakers for some, barefoot for others; let-loose-and-have-fun attitude.

Type of workout: Cardio

Muscles worked: Total body

Getting started advice: There are a lot of visual directions, so pick a spot in class where you can easily see the instructor. Don’t expect to be able to follow everything your first time. Just have fun, do what you can, and stick with it because it gets easier.


Yoga is a series of standing and seated poses that incorporate stretches, twists, and balance. Learn more about the benefits of yoga here.

What you need: Call ahead to see if you need to bring your own mat or any other supplies.

Type of workout: Strength, flexibility, balance

Muscles worked: Total body

Getting started advice: While most yoga is low impact, not all yoga is appropriate for beginners. It’s better to start with a beginner or gentle practice such as Hatha or Iyengar to help you master the basics before moving into a Vinyasa class where you flow from one posture to the next.

Tai Chi

This ancient Chinese martial arts practice features graceful movements that are synchronized to your breath. The flowing routine is very mindful and meditative.

What you need: Loose, comfortable clothing

Type of workout: Flexibility, balance

Muscles worked: Total body

Getting started advice: To enhance the benefits and learn the routine, practice tai chi daily, even if only for ten minutes at a time.


This conditioning workout uses body weight resistance exercises (mat classes) or special equipment to strengthen and stretch muscles especially in your core (abs, back, and hips). The routines focus on good posture and alignment and match your breath to the moves – resulting in greater body awareness.

What you need: A mat or special equipment, depending on the class. Again, call ahead to see if these are supplied.

Type of workout: Strength, flexibility, coordination

Muscles worked: Total body

Getting started advice: Start with a mat class so you can focus more on the mechanics and breath before incorporating equipment.

For fun, seasonal low-impact workouts, get out and roller blade, row, kayak, or hike during warm weather months. In the winter, give cross-country skiing, ice skating, or snowshoeing a try.

For more stories in the Getting Started Exercising series, visit The DX archive.

Michele Stanten is a certified fitness instructor and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Shape, More, and other magazines. She is also on the Board of Directors for the American Council on Exercise. Michele lives in Coopersburg, PA, with her husband, two children, and two cats. Stanten is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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