I Tried Only Low-Impact Workouts for 2 Weeks. Here’s What Happened.

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What’s your workout persona? For me, it’s the Energizer Bunny. I’ve been told by a trainer I’m like a Ferrari – always running. No, not literally. I’m more of a boxer/lifter type (if you are too, check out my review of Taylor Swift’s go-to studio, Dogpound). Although, I did once run a 55-mile race in the Serengeti with lion, bison, and zebra (oh my!). So you can imagine I was a little apprehensive when I was challenged to give up my burpee-loving lifestyle for low-impact workouts for half a month.

Pam Geisel, CSCS, CPT, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital of Special Surgery, defines low-impact workouts “as exercise that has low load on the musculoskeletal system, often represented by activities that are not full weight bearing – think swimming, cycling, Pilates.” An easy way to tell if something’s low impact: exercises that have at least one foot on the ground at all times usually are. So jumping jacks aren’t low impact; but alternating step-outs are.

But while people tend to think of low impact as synonymous with “easy,” that’s not the case. “Low-impact should not be confused with low-intensity,” Geisel says. Low-impact exercise can be performed at a variety of intensities. For instance, cycling classes and cozy cardio are both low-impact workouts, performed at different intensities.

Despite my personal commitment to high-impact workouts, I wasn’t immune to the buzz around low-impact exercises. Pilates was the most popular workout of 2023 with reservations for Pilates bookings up 92 percent, according to a study by exercise platforms MindBody and ClassPass.

Why the interest? “Low-impact exercise can stimulate all of the wonderful benefits of exercise, including improved cardiovascular health, improved blood sugar regulation, increased strength and mobility, better sleep, and so much more,” says Geisel. And it does so without the strain on your joints, which may help you avoid injury. Low-impact exercises can also feel more approachable for people new to the gym or coming back after a break, which may be why these workouts have been so popular recently.

These benefits sound alright to me – especially the better sleep, since I often find myself wired after workouts Not one to shy away from a bet – er, challenge – I opened up PS’s Guide to Low-Impact Workouts and mapped out my routine for the next two weeks.

In order to really get myself out of my comfort zone during my two-week experiment, I decided to do a mix of low-impact, low-intensity workouts for the first week, and low-impact, high-intensity classes for the second week. Here’s how it went.

Experts Featured in This Article

Pam Geisel, CSCS, CPT, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital of Special Surgery.

Week 1: Low-Impact, Low-Intensity

I kicked off my first week with a long walk, a classic low-impact workout. Setting out with my new rescue Shaggy and my friend Brooke, we walked up and down the city of Hoboken, only stopping for dog parks and to kindly redirect Shaggy not to eat whatever he finds on the street.

A full 20,000 steps later, I was feeling accomplished and despite all the ground we covered, my body felt good enough to book a workout for the next day. (If I’d run that distance – about seven or eight miles – I may have had to take a rest day after.)

Next up, it’s Impact Flow, which is a combination of yoga and sculpt. The 7:30 pm class was lined with electric candles and mats laid out in a dimly lit room. I’m intrigued, but also exhausted after a full workday, and couldn’t help but think that those mats were looking more inviting for savasana than sweat. But while the class started with a short meditation, immediately after we were off, flowing in a 360-movement around the mat, interspersed with moments of strength using eight-pound weights and sliders.

Strangely enough, despite the active class, I was tired from start to finish. I found myself yawning throughout class as I flowed from one move to the next. I was relaxed, but was I too relaxed? What happened to that energizer bunny?

Over the next few days, I continued with the long walks – I clocked in at around two hours of walking a day, minimum. It’s nice that my bonding time with my furbaby can also count as exercise. However, I was already itching to lift something heavy. So, I signed up for an Impact Circuit class.

The circuit-style sculpting class was just what I needed: kettlebell, dumbbell, and bodyweight exercises galore, while still counting as low-impact. But even though I’d been craving the weights, I found myself staring at my watch and yawning in between sets. This was an early-evening class; there was no reason I should have been so tired – unless it was something these low-impact workouts were doing to me.

I asked Geisel if the low-impact exercise sessions could be making me tired – or, at least, not making me feel more awake – and she said there isn’t a lot of research on the subject. Harvard Health Publishing points to one old study that indicates that yawning during exercise may be an effort to cool the brain, which became my best working theory.

I rounded out my week of low-impact, low-intensity workouts with a hot yoga and sound bath. The flow was great, and even though I’d worked out every day for a week prior, I felt great mobility in my body.

With week one in the books, I headed back to ClassPass to book my next week’s workouts, this time looking to add a little umph into my workout routine.

Week 2: Low-Impact, High(er)-Intensity

Since Pilates is the #1 workout, I knew I had to add it to my lineup, but this time I was doing it with a twist. Behold, Ken Pilates‘ HotSprings class. “HotSprings uses the [Pilates] Springboard to provide resistance, allowing participants to engage their muscles effectively without putting undue stress on their body,” owner Kennyth Montes de Oca tells PS. “The added element of [the] heat[ed room] helps to improve flexibility and circulation, further reducing the risk of injury.”

Despite the blanket of 90-degree heat that washed over me, I felt energized and engaged during the class. The class utilized several different pieces of equipment, such as an exercise disc, resistance band, Pilates ball, and Springboard. I loved that we moved in all planes of motion and really felt like the exercises were acutely hitting those smaller muscle groups through the pulsating work we did throughout the class – something I don’t always get to do in my high-impact classes. Not to mention the teacher’s music and cueing left me smiling ear to ear. Honestly try working out to a ‘I’m Looking for a Guy In Finance’ without cracking a smile.

I noticed I was starting to get used to these low-impact workouts, but I was still missing that heart-pumping exhilaration you get from good old-fashioned cardio. Enter, GoRow. Started by physical therapist and exercise physiologist Garret Roberts, GoRow incorporates rowing and exercises to make each person a stronger and more powerful rower, such as high pulls and tuck up rows. It also includes “prehab rehab” exercises done with a resistance band that help strengthen your ankles, knees, and hips in case you do high-impact exercises outside of class. This was exactly the class I was looking for: it had weight lifting, stretching, and low-impact cardio bursts on the rower tied to specific goals, like “racing” to complete as many meters in possible in one minute. My Capricorn brain appreciated the challenge and my joints appreciated the ease.

Ever the adventurist, I decided to go wild for my last class and try HotWorx Pilates in Greenwich Village. HOTWORX is an infrared studio that offers rowing, cycling, yoga, Pilates, and more. The 24-hour gym is filled with several different personalized sauna pods for you to take a class with your 3-D instructor via a TV in your studio. You can rev your sauna up to 130 degrees, which I did since I was going to end my low-impact, high-intensity workout with a bang. The workout featured Pilates moves I was familiar with – hundreds, reverse planks with leg raises, and double leg kick to name a few.

Since it was so hot I took it extra slow, opting for the modifications over the challenge moves often – and I was OK with that. Finally, I was resisting the have-to-overperform mentality of my Energizer Bunny persona and giving into a new mentality: let’s just feel good and do the best I can do right now.

After the workout, I was guided through a short foam rolling exercise routine and then just laid in a nice heart-opening pose soaking up the infrared and enjoying that dripping-sweat feeling. I left super relaxed with my skin glowing, and a few hours later, I enjoyed the best night of sleep.

The Verdict

As someone who defines their workout by perceived exertion, which usually means drenched in sweat and calves quaking, it was very odd to have two weeks of workouts that didn’t leave me feeling as sore as I’m used to.

On the flipside, I was thrilled with the great night’s rest I had and the ability to wake up feeling like my body was ready to move with no issues in my joints at all.

I’m really glad I tried this experiment and will absolutely incorporate more low-impact high- and low-intensity workouts into my routine. However, I can’t wait to get back in the ring and sprinkle more of my high-impact, high(er) intensity workouts in, too. And FWIW, Geisel is on board with that plan: “It’s important to ensure that you are meeting ACSM’s recommendations for exercise of 150 minutes to moderate intensity exercise each week,” she points out. As with everything, when it comes to workout impact and intensity, moderation wins yet again.

Marietta Alessi is a wellness writer with nearly 10 years of experience. In addition to PS, her work has appeared in Shape, Bustle, and many other outlets.

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