In a recent article by Sadhbh O’Sullivan of MSN, a case was made favoring Low Impact Exercise over its higher-intensity counterpart, HIIT. In this article, we’ll decide which form of training is best for you.

If you’ve made your way to this article, you likely take your exercise habits more seriously than most. An important aspect of anyone’s “fitness journey” is the longevity of it. And whether you’re training to run a 4-minute mile, press 300 pounds or look impressive wearing a tank top, we can all agree that we’d like to feel happy and healthy in the process.

A recent article was published by MSN, overviewing the benefits of low impact exercise and the proposed detriments of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). In O’Sullivan’s article, she references research performed at Rutgers University, which correlates the rise in HIIT’s popularity with a rise in orthopedic conditions such as ankle sprains and ligamentous knee injuries.

The author goes on to make prudent points regarding the current state of the fitness industry. One such point is that people are more interested in “restorative fitness” methods such as yoga, Tai Chi and, if may be so bold, physical therapy than they’ve been in previous decades. These techniques are meant not only to improve physical health but also mental and emotional well being as well.

You might have noticed these “restorative” methods are predominantly low-impact activities.

But should HIIT be left in the dust in favor of low-impact training? First, let’s overview each method of training individually.

Low Impact Exercise is anything that involves…you guessed it, low impact. Examples may include swimming, yoga, rowing and any other training methodology not involving jarring, reciprocating forces about your joints.
The Argument for Low Impact Exercise

It’s proposed since these modes of exercise are less rigorous on your joints, fewer injuries will occur and thus, one may continue exercising without the interruption due to injury. This assertion is fair.

O’Sullivan goes on to write, “Moving towards a low impact training method gives you the time and space to strengthen your body properly.” This is where I take some exception with the article.

“Strength your body properly.” To be honest, I’m not sure what this means. In my opinion, we strengthen our bodies to perform in any way we desire and to do so without pain. A Crossfitter’s version of strength and a golfer’s version will be vastly different. It is folly to lump them each into the same category of strength training.

As a physical therapist, of course I’m a proponent of corrective exercise, appropriate warm-up and performing movements within a range of motion that your joints will thank you for. However, we should not be scared of performing high impact activities, especially if it involves something we love doing.

That being said, the benefits of low impact exercise can be plentiful for some. For instance, those who are currently injured, elderly or those who simply prefer training this way. Yoga, for instance, can be a wonderful method of training your body and mind in a fashion that many may deem as “recovery.”

The Argument for HIIT

Around the mid-2000s, HIIT began a meteoric rise in popularity. For many, long gone were the days of jogging 45 consecutive minutes and calling it a day.

In its simplest form, HIIT is defined as any method of training that employs short bursts of intense anaerobic exercise with subsequent and repeated rest intervals. For the sake of this writing, we can operate assuming that most forms of HIIT are also high-impact such as box jumps, sprints, or Olympic lifting.

HIIT is a tremendous mode of training because it’s time efficient, physiologically beneficial and enjoyable.

In a review by Wewege et al., HIIT was found to have similar fat-reduction benefits when compared to moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) in a group of overweight subjects. What’s more, these effects occurred though the HIIT sessions were 40% lesser in duration.

Further, research by Kong et al. found that HIIT was better than MICT at preserving lean body mass while having similar effects to MICT at reducing resting blood glucose levels.

Which is Best for You?

The benefits of low-impact exercise are notable.

  • Injury is less frequent.
  • It may be beneficial for special populations including those with current joint damage or predispositions for joint damage.
  • It’s more akin to multitasking as with those who enjoy reading, socializing, or working while they exercise.

HIIT also has many advantages.

HIIT shows statistically similar effects regarding fat loss and resting blood glucose reductions compared to MICT with a higher propensity to preserve lean body mass and does so in a more time-efficient manner.
  • It’s time-efficient.
  • Sport-specific training is better accomplished.
  • Many consider it more enjoyable.

Deciding which version of exercise to complete is not a matter of exclusivity. For instance, I primarily train using HIIT methods, but I also enjoy cooling down on the bike with a good book. These individual choices are largely that… individual. This is because different athletes should train differently.

For instance, a football player should be using methods more akin to HIIT because short spurts of high intensity practically define their game. Whereas, a mall walker may be better served using low impact methods.

Take Home Points
  • Low Impact Exercise projects as a growing means of activity to both strengthen the body as well as the mind.
  • Low Impact Exercise is intuitively less akin to injury.
  • HIIT does still have its place due to its time efficiency and relationship to competition.
  • Align your exercise regimen with your exercise goals.
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