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High Impact Cardio VS Low Impact Cardio – What Are The Differences And Which is Better?

With our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, levels of fitness have declined and one of the biggest threats facing society nowadays is obesity. There are one or two things that could be done about this, but basically, it’s about eating less and better; and taking on more cardio. Given that then the key question is: What sort of cardio is best? Well exercises can be broken into two main types: Low Impact Cardio and High Impact Cardio.

High Impact Cardio VS Low Impact Cardio

What exactly does that mean?  Well, it means the impact on your body – that is your joints, muscles and bones when you take part in exercise – especially when you land.   For example, jumping puts incredible stress on your bones when you land from the impact as your feet hit the ground under the pull of gravity; whereas walking steadily does not.

In any case, incorporating cardio into your training routine is a must. There are so many benefits to cardio and exercise in general, from transforming your brain to boosting your testosterone levels.

This article will look at the two types of exercise; the pros, the cons; which types of exercise fall within which category; and then what might be best for you.


The Difference Benween Impact And Intensity in Cardio

High impact cardio vs high intensity cardio

It is important to understand the difference between ‘impact’ and ‘intensity’.

  • Impact is about the stress which your body is placed under as a result of doing something.
  • Intensity – especially cardio intensity – is the degree to which you are exercising – i.e. how intense is the exercise and therefore how intense is your heart – or cardiac rate.

So, for example, you can have a high intensity workout that is low impact: for example, swimming or cycling where there is no impact at all – you increase the intensity merely by cycling or swimming faster – but this does not affect the impact as there is none.  Cardio intensity is about getting your cardiac rate up and therefore stretching your body fitness levels and building up heart fitness and lung strength.

You can also have a high impact activity where there is low cardiac intensity – for example jogging which is high impact but, as you are not running very fast, is quite low in terms of cardiac intensity.  Jogging is loosely defined as being able to have a conversation with someone whilst engaging in it – this is clearly impossible when sprinting.


What is High Impact Cardio?

What is High Impact Cardio

The definition of high impact is that at any one time both of your feet are off the ground. For example, when you are running you take off from one foot and then, before the other foot goes to the ground, you take off with the second foot.

Walking by contrast is defined as always having one foot on the ground so you stand on one foot and move off with the other foot and you don’t move your second foot till the first foot has landed back on the ground.  In addition, when walking there is little force put into placing your foot back on the ground – it is a gentle movement – but, nevertheless, walking is good for you, and a good way to begin to get fit.


Flight phase

When you are in a High Impact Cardio activity the movement is known as a “flight phase” because you have both feet off the ground at the same time – i.e. you are ‘flying’.  It is High Impact as gravity drags the foot down quickly and thus there is a ‘shock’ transmitted through your feet, legs, joints and body – with each step. This shock or force equates to roughly 2 1/2 times your bodyweight; whereas when you walk, it is about 1 1/4 – i.e. Low Impact.

Running not only puts twice as much stress or impact on your body as walking, but also when you are running you probably cover about 175 meters a minute, whereas when you are walking most people walk at about 90 metres a minute – so not only is each pace in running more stressful, but you are fitting in more – so it is more than doubling the stress of the impact on the body than when walking.


Why Would You Do High Impact Cardio Then?

In other words, are there any benefits of High Impact Cardio?

Well, yes, in fact, High Impact is good for you both in terms of cardiac intensity and in terms of strengthening muscles and bones. That is why it is recommended to always integrate cardio into your routine, even when you are bulking, you just have to do it before or after weight lifting.

Running strengthens your heart, your bones as it improves bone density, and lifts your general degree of fitness. We will talk more about the benefits of high impact cardio down below.


High Impact Cardio Exercises Include:

  • Running;
  • Jumping;
  • Squats;
  • Tennis;
  • Football;
  • Skipping;
  • Squash; and


Benefits of High Impact Cardio

The benefits of High Impact Cardio include that it:

  • will increase muscle strength and muscle force;
  • is an efficient way of burning calories, and will help keep your weight down (although muscle is heavier than fat – you will burn fat off as well as toning up;
  • will increase your power;
  • should increase your speed depending on how fast you do it;
  • will lift your heart rate and strengthen the heart and lungs but don’t overdo it;
  • will increase bone density.


Osteoporosis, which is a weak bone disease, is increasing: this is because people are taking less exercise, and particularly less High Impact Cardio.  High Impact Cardio also improves your muscular coordination and your reactions. The drawback of it is you might get stress in bones and pains in your joints if you do not follow a sensible programme. It can also cause muscle cramps after your workout.


Low Impact Cardio

What is Low Impact Cardio

Low Impact Cardio Exercises Include:

  • walking;
  • cycling;
  • rowing;
  • climbing stairs – although similar to walking it is higher in Cardio Intensity as you are also ‘climbing’;
  • cross country skiing – where you always have a foot on the ground; and
  • Yoga and tai chi are virtually impact free; and
  • swimming is totally impact free.


Karate and similar martial arts probably fall in the middle of the two because many moves are slow with Low Impact Cardio Intensity and then some moves explosively fast with High Impact Cardio intensity.  When you are engaging in sparring you are moving around, but it is fairly slow until the attack goes in, and thus you tend not to be High Impact most of the time.

When you run, by contrast, the whole exercise is High Impact Cardio intense.

Tennis is also good example of High Impact that can be either High Cardio Intensity or Low Cardio – depending on how fast the game is; you run forwards and backwards and you move sideways and run sideways with great impact as you’re trying to reach the ball.  Squash is the same – but much more High Impact Cardio intense, as the ball is not allowed to bounce on the ground, and it is one of the most oxygen intense sports around.  People can have heart attacks on a squash court – so do not play it to get fit – get fit to play it.

When you are cycling or swimming, by contrast, your body is actually suspended off the ground, so there is no impact at all.  Obviously when cycling you are pushing the pedals up and down, but you are not touching the ground so there is no impact:  but it can be very high cardio intensity if you cycle quickly – for example spinning.

Push-ups are Low Impact Cardio – but if you add in a clap at the top of the push this becomes High Impact Cardio as your hands then take an impact as you return them to the ground.  Putting in a clap at set intervals – say every 3rd or 4th push up – gives a mix of High Impact Cardio and Low Impact Cardio in the same exercise.

Swimming can be very high intensity as well but there is absolutely no impact because your body weight is fully supported by the water.  Even diving is Low Impact Cardio because you are not touching the ground.  Hurdling is an extremely High Impact Cardio exercise because you are running very fast and then jumping over hurdles and landing hard.  Cross training on a machine is Low Impact Cardio because your feet are always on the pedals but it can be very high in Intensity depending on how fast you move – and it gives you a full body workout.


Low Impact Cardio benefits

Low Impact Cardio exercise – especially Low Impact which is Cardio Intense – also has benefits.  For example:

  • there is much less impact on bones, joints;
  • your spine is much less likely to get injured;
  • it takes you less time to recover after workouts and you may not need any recovery time at all after something like yoga;
  • it is easier and more approachable for beginners – so it is appropriate for the less fit and those who are overweight and want to get into exercise;
  • It will still burn calories – just not at such a fast rate.


Drawbacks of Low Impact

One of the drawbacks of Low Impact is that unless it is Low Impact Cardio intense then it might be harder to elevate your heart rate, but if you’ve ever taken part in a spinning class or even watched it, you can see their heart rates are definitely going up – and if you swim quickly that will also get your heart rate going up.

The other drawback of Low Impact Intensity exercise, is it does not increase your bone density by as much.  This is important if you wish to strengthen your bones, to stave off Osteoporosis for example.


Things to Consider

Low impact cardrio exercises vs high impact cardio exercises


An important aspect of fitness is making sure that your diet also supports it.  Cow’s milk is an important factor in developing bone mass: this is why Northern Europeans tend to be taller than Southern Europeans as they drink more milk.

The Japanese as a nation have become taller since cow’s milks became a part of their diet.  Other good foods to support bone mass development include tomato juice, fortified orange juice and some herbal teas.

What Form of Cardio is Best For me?

So, what should I do then? Well, it is clear that for best results the optimal form of exercise is a blend of High Impact Cardio and Low Impact Cardio – with varying degrees of intensity.

For example, circuit training or HIIT where you can use different machines in different ways and involving both High Impact Cardio and Low Impact Cardio at different intensity levels is very good.  You can run; you can do cross-training; you can cycle and so on.

Going for good brisk walks is Low Impact Cardio, but still very good for your heart.  During The Peninsula War in the early 1800’s, the British Army Light Division developed the ‘Light Division March’ which was to run 100 yards; then walk a set distance; then run 100 yards; and then walk a set distance.  This both enabled them to move rapidly – and also kept the troops fit without being too tiring or impactful.  You could try that or you could take up other sports which are High Impact Cardio – Low Impact Cardio mix – there are plenty to go for.

A recent study estimated that 20% of Americans have low bone density and that women are particularly prone to it – with the incidence in European women being approximately three times that for European men.  Men develop better bone mass and muscle and thus their skeletal integration is better – but women live longer though!  In Africa low bone density is a shocking 40%.


Have a plan

Set yourself some objectives and then establish a fitness regime to support this: containing a blend of High Impact Cardio and Low Impact Cardio with different intensity levels to ensure all round development.

Take it easy and follow a step-by-step process of building up exercise intensity.  If in doubt as to your general health, see your medical practitioner first and make sure there’s nothing you need to worry about.  Get assistance from a trainer, if appropriate, who can help you develop a personalised regime and plan.