The Case for Low-Impact Workouts
In some corners of the internet, low-impact exercise is having a moment. Even the most hard-charging athletes can benefit from a change of pace.
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Natalie Laser had trained herself to work to the point of exhaustion. As a former competitive soccer player for the University of Southern California, sprints, high-intensity interval training, and strenuous lifting sessions were part of her regular routine. But at the same time, Laser was fighting an internal battle. “I struggled with disordered eating and overexercise,” she says. “At some point, I was like, I don’t know if or how I’ll get out of this.”
In 2018, after her freshman season, Laser left the soccer team to focus on her mental and physical health. Over time, her mindset around fitness shifted. Instead of hard runs, she prioritized low-impact exercises like pilates, yoga, and walking.
Laser isn’t the only one making time for low-impact activities. The 2021 Garmin Health and Fitness Data Insights reported a 108 percent increase in pilates from 2020, the largest in any category among its users. And in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal’s annual report, HIIT dropped out of the top five biggest fitness trends for the first time since 2013.
Elizabeth Endres and Dale Stabler, co-founders of the online fitness community Sweats & The City, frequented a range of boutique fitness classes prior to the pandemic. And when the world shut down, they realized that their low-impact at-home workouts were just as satisfying as in-person treadmill classes. But they still felt like something was missing; they wanted a larger variety of virtual offerings that could keep them engaged and challenged. Earlier this year, they launched Orro ($19/month), a virtual fitness app offering a range of low-impact workouts. Many of their members have mirrored their pivot from heavy dumbbells and sprints to light weights and slower movements, even after some in the community expressed skepticism. “I think a lot of people might be nervous at first to take that leap, and try out pilates or barre instead of their usual running and weightlifting,” Stabler says. “They’re surprised to see that they can feel really strong, that it’s a really big challenge, and that they’re getting the results they want.”
A reluctance to try out low-impact movement could be linked to the way many Americans think about exercise. Laser says she previously equated the intensity of her workouts with the amount of pain she felt or amount of sweat she released. That changed when she switched to low-impact. “You don’t have to feel like you’re crawling out of a gym to move your body and to have a good workout,” she says.
That mindset about pain, sweat, and exercise is common, especially for former college athletes. “You learn when you’re training that you have to train hard every single day,” says DeAnne Brooks, an assistant professor in kinesiology at UNC Greensboro. This mentality can mean that many athletes never test out low-impact exercises, she says. In a study she conducted, Brooks found former collegiate athletes didn’t consider walking to be a valuable workout. Some coaches may also be reluctant to let their athletes try out different types of movement, like yoga, out of concern that it might negatively impact their performance, she says.
A demanding training schedule can cause feelings of anxiety around high-intensity workouts that can linger even after the end of a formal athletic career, Brooks says. In her study, some participants attempted to continue their training regime after graduating but couldn’t. Their performance anxiety remained, even without the competition. They were stuck. “They didn’t really have experience with other types of exercise,” Brooks says. “They didn’t like the track and field training just for fun, and so, they did nothing.”
For some, low-impact activities, such as walking and online yoga, may be more accessible than workouts requiring a gym membership or expensive gear. And in some cases, they may limit some of the stress that can be caused by grueling exercises.
It ultimately comes down to frequency. High-intensity exercises, like HIIT or fast running, can release endorphins and allow you to complete an effective workout under a time crunch. However, over-exercising or overtraining, especially with HIIT and other strenuous workouts, can spike your cortisol, potentially leading to anxiety, mood changes, and fatigue.
While moderate amounts of cortisol (or HIIT) aren’t dangerous, high doses can adversely impact your mental and physical health. In comparison, low-impact exercise doesn’t cause a cortisol spike, and may even lead to a reduction in cortisol levels. These slower movements can also help you focus on your form and protect your joints, compared to faster cardio movements, Stabler says.
Despite all of the benefits of low-impact exercise, it’s still not a magic bullet. Some TikTok users, for example, are quick to declare low-impact workouts as the solution to balancing your hormones and managing your weight. However, low-impact isn’t a cure-all, and in some cases, it may not be more beneficial than HIIT. TikTok enthusiasts of pilates, walking, and yoga often claim that such activities are better for those with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition impacting 6 to 12 percent of American women, compared to HIIT and other high-intensity workouts. That’s not necessarily the case. “There’s no real research to back up that low-intensity is better than anything else for PCOS,” Dr. Jessica Chan, an OBGYN at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, says. “I think the key thing for PCOS is just consistent activity and exercise.” Like other health conditions, there’s no perfect workout for PCOS. Consistency is the key. “I usually tell my patients it’s really about creating a good routine for yourself and picking something that you enjoy doing—and doing a lot of,” she says. That could be pilates, running, or HIIT.
The real magic bullet is: do what feels right for you. Fitness fads will come and go, but Laser hopes that the value of low-impact workouts will continue to resonate. Instead of sticking to a particular plan or set of rules, she’s listening to what her body needs. And right now, it’s telling her to skip the bootcamp and go for a walk.