Low impact classes have gained popularity in recent years and for good reason. Utilising slower, controlled movements subjects your joints to less stress and chance of injury, while still providing a host of positive body composition benefits.
“In a low impact environment, you remove the risk of stress on muscles and joints that often results in muscle soreness, stress fractures and injury native to high impact activity,” says nutritionist, trainer and online coach Brooke Turner.
“There are certainly benefits for nearly everyone.”
Certified Pilates instructor Renee Scott (balancemoves.com.au) says low impact exercises or group classes are ideal for older individuals, pre- and post-natal women and women experiencing menopause, as you can perform them at your own pace. Water based activities, in particular, are beneficial for those returning from injury or are in the midst of a rehabilitation program.
“Water acts as a cushion for the body’s weight-bearing joints, reducing stress on muscles, tendons and ligaments. Water supports ninety per cent of the body’s weight – think aqua fitness and deep water running,” says Turner. “Aqua fitness can also increase flexibility, promoting faster rehab from injury than land-based activity.”
STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE
“Low impact workouts are great for slowly building strength and endurance at your own pace. Routine and consistency are key for changing the body and mind toward healthy habits – these workouts have little to no recovery requirements, so you can participate practically everyday. The higher the frequency, the quicker the results,” says Scott. “Long-term, you’ll find benefits such as toning, increase in muscle and muscle endurance, bone density and strength and stability.”
Mobility and elasticity of the joints and muscles is also improved through activities such as yoga and Pilates, which can aid the depth and efficiency of your heavier lifts back in the gym.
“Lower impact training increases flexibility, lengthening and stretching the muscles, helping your muscles to work correctly,” explains Turner. “Moreover, kinesthetic awareness – your brain’s ability to calculate where your body is located in three-dimensional space in relation to other objects around you – helps to improve balance and flexibility. Something like barre improves flexibility and posture, as well as strength and muscle tone.”
Despite these benefits, if building lean muscle mass is your ultimate goal, additional resistance training is probably required. Muscle hypertrophy requires a progressive overload of the muscle to encourage it to adapt and build into a bigger, stronger version of itself. While barre is great for improving your mind-body connection, its use of bodyweight makes adding additional weight (and so muscle stress) difficult and results may therefore plateau.
If your goal is to lose weight, lower-intensity workouts combined with a solid resistance training program is an efficient combination. Lower-intensity and low impact exercise can be performed for longer periods (which is why that Zumba class is usually upward of 45 minutes) giving you the time to burn plenty of calories in-workout.
“Lower-intensity exercise digs deeper into your fat stores for the primary source of energy, rather than your carbohydrates and glucose sources. It enhances your ability to use fat as an efficient fuel source, which reserves muscle glycogen to be used for higher-intensity exercise,” says Turner.
According to research published by the US National Institutes of Health, aerobic exercises performed in water can burn approximately 501 calories per hour (for a 90kg person) and a bout of yoga can burn anywhere from 228 to 364 cals depending on the type and level of intensity.
Consider aqua fitness if fat loss is your primary goal. “Water has greater resistance than air, which means walking in water requires more effort and ultimately burns more calories than walking on land,” adds Turner.
While these forms of exercise won’t provide you with the after-burn native to HIIT, the lower-intensities do help retain your lean muscle mass, aiding your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or calorie-burn at rest. While the jury is still undecided on the exact number, muscle is thought to burn anywhere from 10 to 50 calories per half kilogram per day, compared to fat’s measly two to five. So the last thing you want to do is destroy your hard earned gains in pursuit of higher-intensity burn.
Lower impact classes performed for upward of an hour utilise your aerobic energy system, improving your cardiovascular and endurance fitness in the long-term.
“It does this through improving aerobic metabolism due to it increasing the mitochondrial density in slow-twitch muscle fibers,” says Turner.
While low impact exercise aids cardiovascular fitness and fat loss to some extent, you won’t see huge increases in your fitness levels, strength or body composition with these alone.The reason? The intensity and volume of training simply isn’t enough to stress your body to the point of adaptation. While Turner recommends low impact training for those wanting to maintain a lean and petite frame, it is limited when it comes to building lean muscle in particular.
“If performing exercise like aqua fitness or Zumba alone, the aerobic energy system is the predominant energy system used, which is great for fat burning but may result in decreased lean muscle mass. This is because frequent activity of this kind potentially utilises muscle glycogen stores as energy,” says Turner.
“For those wanting to see significant improvements in strength and size, these types of workouts alone will not provide that.”
Doing what you enjoy and including variety, to guard against dips in motivation and pesky result plateaus.
“If you love to run, do it! If you love to hit the dance floor, then do it!” encourages Scott. “I suggest mixing up your routine every four to six weeks to keep your body guessing and your fitness levels progressing. Challenge your mind and body by trying a different skill or fitness class every month – who knows, you might meet a new friend or discover a new hobby.”
NEXT: Discover how to de-stress with yoga.