Stiff or painful joints can be frustrating and sometimes get in the way of exercise plans. But staying active is an important part of maintaining joint health. Exercise can improve joint function and flexibility, strengthen the surrounding supportive muscles, and prevent stiffness. However, the key to staying active while keeping the risk of injury low, is to explore low impact exercise options that are gentle on joints.
Many people believe that taking part in high intensity activities is the only way to reap the health benefits of exercise. But research has shown that moderate intensity, low impact exercise, such as fast walking and yoga, is just as effective as high impact activities like running, in lowering the risk of heart disease.
If you want to keep it moving while still being kind to your joints, then why not check out our list of 14 low impact exercise ideas? From swimming and walking football, through to bowls and Tai Chi, hopefully there’s something to pique your interest.
1. Nordic walking
Nordic walking is a form of walking that involves the use of specially designed walking poles. These poles have long been used by trekkers to provide additional support and stability while walking. Not only do the pole movements make Nordic walking a full-body workout that engages 80% to 90% of muscles in the upper body, but they also reduce the pressure on joints.
One study found that the pressure on joints while Nordic walking was significantly lower than that of regular walking – with a 28% reduction of pressure on knee joints specifically. Plus, Nordic walking has been proven to aid weight loss, tone muscles, boost circulation and cardiovascular health, and improve mental wellbeing. It can also be done anywhere, and is suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.
You can find more information about Nordic walking, including the technique, what equipment you’ll need, and how to get involved with walking groups, in our Beginner’s guide to Nordic walking.
It’s a common misconception that rowing is a workout for your arms only, because in reality, it provides a full-body workout that uses 86% of your body muscles. It also burns between 250 and 400 calories every half an hour.
Despite this full-body burn, the great thing about rowing is that you can easily control the movement and pace. As a result, it’s sometimes recommended by health experts as an option for people with early osteoarthritis, to help improve their symptoms. This 2014 study of 24 rowers over a period of eight weeks found that joint rotations in the elbow, lumbar, shoulder, and knee, all improved by about 30%.
Rowing machines are available to use at most gyms and available to buy on Amazon. You can search for your local gym here. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to row as part of a team or complete a rowing course, you can search for rowing clubs and courses near you on the British Rowing website.
3. Strength training
Strength training can be a great way to build stronger muscles that can better protect and support your joints. Weight training, for example, has been proven to ease joint pain and stiffness, boost bone strength, improve balance, and help you maintain a healthy weight.
Strength training can be done at home or in the gym. Common variations include bodyweight exercises like planks, lunges and squats, as well as the use of free weight equipment such as medicine balls or kettlebells. It also includes weight machines, which are available to use at most gyms.
You can find your local gym here. And for more information about strength training, including how to get started, have a read of our article; The importance of building strength and balance in your 50s and 60s.
Exercising in the water is a great way to reduce stress on joints because the buoyancy of water supports our body weight. Research shows that buoyancy decreases the effect of gravity, meaning that with chest to neck level immersion, body weight is reduced by 75-90%. Swimming also offers a great full-body workout and can help to build endurance and muscle strength, improve flexibility and coordination, and alleviate stress.
Different swimming strokes can be used to target different muscles – and generally speaking, the best swimming strokes for stiff or sore joints are front crawl and backstroke, where the legs travel in a straight line. Strokes such as breaststroke (which require sideways movements) should be avoided, as these can place stress on the outside of the knees.
If you’re keen to get started, ArthroSurface have some useful tips in their article; Learn how to improve joint health with swimming. Alternatively, if you’re ready to start swimming, you can search for adult swimming classes near you on Better.org.
Yoga is great for improving physical fitness and general wellbeing. Yoga poses tend to be gentle on joints, while helping to strengthen the surrounding muscles, and improve their flexibility and function.
As a result, studies have concluded that yoga is a safe way for people with arthritis to increase their physical activity. Other benefits of yoga include reduced body tension, lowered stress, and improved sleep.
It should be noted however, that some forms of yoga use more challenging yoga positions and movements than others. For example, dynamic yoga requires you to move through a sequence of poses in a lively and fluid way. If you suffer from joint pain or are a beginner, it’s generally best to focus on getting comfortable with stationary poses first. You can always move on to more challenging sequences, poses and speeds later. The Yoga Journal has a list of poses that are best for joint pain.
You can learn more about yoga, including different variations, benefits, and how to get started in our Introduction to Yoga.
Cycling is a low impact form of exercise that works the lower body and cardiovascular system. It’s low impact because the continuous pedalling motion doesn’t pound on joints. Studies have shown that by placing less stress on weight-bearing joints such as knees, hips, and feet, cycling can reduce joint pain and stiffness.
Other benefits of cycling include weight management, strengthened muscles, and the ability to adjust intensity depending on fitness level.
It is, however, important to have the right size bike, and to have the saddle and handlebars at the correct height. This will help you to adopt the correct cycling posture, and avoid muscle strain.
You can find more information about how to pick the right bike, as well as other cycling basics, equipment, and how to get involved in the cycling community in our Beginner’s guide to cycling. Alternatively, if you’re already a keen cyclist, you might be interested in our article; 9 beautiful cycle routes in the UK.
7. Lawn bowls
Lawn bowls can be enjoyed by people of all ages and experience levels. The aim is to roll biased shaped balls as close to a smaller ball (known as the ‘jack’ or ‘kitty’) as possible. Bowls isn’t the most energetic game, but it keeps you up on your feet – and according to the British Heart Foundation, you can walk up to three miles per game. Plus, it’s good for posture, flexibility, balance, and hand-eye coordination.
Bowls is also a very social game and many people get together within their communities to play. Plus, most bowls clubs also provide other non-bowling activities such as whist drives and quiz nights, so it’s a great way to meet new people. If you’re interested in joining a bowls club, you can use this NHS tool to search for one in your area.
8. Aqua aerobics
Aqua aerobics is a great low impact activity done mostly in waist-deep water. The movements are usually inspired by studio aerobics techniques like jumping jacks, back and forth walking and running, arm movements, and cross-country skiing moves.
Being in the water takes the load off of your legs, feet, and back, and allows you to enjoy a longer workout. Therefore, it’s a popular choice for people with joint problems, chronic pain, or who are recovering from injury. Aqua aerobics is also great for building muscle strength, boosting endurance, and can be made as easy or challenging as you like, for example, by adding wrist and ankle weights.
Classes usually last around an hour with an instructor guiding you through the moves. Often, there’ll be music playing in the background to keep you motivated. If you’d like to give aqua aerobics a go, you can search for a local class on the NHS website.
9. Kayaking or canoeing
Kayaking and canoeing are both low impact activities that can improve aerobic fitness, strength, and flexibility. Both activities involve paddling a small craft through water. However, the main difference is that kayaks are enclosed vessels and canoes are open.
Since the paddling movements are done sitting down, there’s a reduced risk of injury to joints and tissues in the lower body. Further benefits of kayaking and canoeing include increased muscle strength, improved cardiovascular fitness, and the peaceful, meditative aspect of the activity.
Canoeing and kayaking can be done as a hobby, a fun holiday activity, or a competitive sport, and you can paddle on lakes and rivers, or in the sea. The best way to learn how to paddle correctly is to join a local club, which you can search for here. You can find out more about canoeing and kayaking, including basic equipment, useful resources, and health and safety on the Better Health website.
10. Zumba Gold
Zumba Gold is a modified form of Zumba that follows original Zumba moves at a lower intensity. The choreography is not only more gentle on joints, but it’s also much easier to keep up with.
Zumba Gold is done to music and movements are often inspired by dances like salsa, cha cha cha, and belly dancing. Half the time it’s easy to forget you’re working out! Additional benefits of Zumba Gold include improved muscular strength, posture, endurance, and range of motion.
If you’d like to give Zumba Gold a go, you can search for your nearest class here.
11. Tai Chi
Tai Chi is a meditative martial art characterised by slow, continuous flowing movements. It was originally developed in 13-century China, but is now practiced worldwide as part of a healthy lifestyle. Tai Chi is gentle on joints and research has shown its ability to improve balance, reduce stress, and offer relief for arthritis pain by improving mobility in the ankles, hips, and knees.
This study, which monitored a group of women with osteoarthritis, found that they had 30% less pain and 30% improved ability to carry out daily activities after practicing Tai Chi for 12 weeks compared with those who hadn’t. Plus, practicing Tai Chi is also an effective method of preventing or delaying the onset of osteoarthritis in the first place. Further benefits include strengthened muscles – plus, improved flexibility, posture, and circulation.
For more information, you might like to have a read of our Beginner’s guide to Tai Chi. Here we cover everything from the main techniques and principles of Tai Chi, its benefits, and how to get started.
12. Walking football
If you love football but struggle to play because of its impact on joints, then walking football could be for you. It’s exactly as described on the tin and follows the same rules of regular football. The only differences are that players aren’t allowed to run, and must keep at least one foot on the ground at all times.
Walking football was introduced in 2012 with the goal of making football more accessible to people of all ages and abilities. While running places joints under a lot of stress, walking can help to improve joint function and flexibility. The slower-paced version of the game also reduces harsh contact and chance of injury.
You can learn more about walking football and how to get started in our Introduction to walking football.
Bowling might not come to mind as a traditional sport, but it’s a great low impact activity. With the aim of knocking as many pins over with your ball, bowling doesn’t involve any large jolting movements. It’s soft on the knees, doesn’t put strain on elbows or wrists, and brings a reduced risk of short and long-term injury.
It might not seem like a particularly taxing sport, but bowling has many health benefits. For example, it improves flexibility, helps relieve stress, and is great for building and stretching muscles all over the body, including the arms and legs. Plus, a bowler will walk on average approximately one kilometre during a three-game series so you’ll be getting some steps in too.
Even better, bowling can be done alone or as part of a team, so it can be a great social activity too. If you’re interested in taking up bowling, you can search for your nearest bowling alley on the Go Tenpin website. Alternatively, you could think of joining the British Tenpin Bowling Association where you can compete in tournaments.
14. Low-impact HIIT
HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. It generally involves short bouts of high-intensity exercise followed by lower intensity intervals for an active recovery. HIIT training is very effective for weight loss because it increases your metabolic rate for hours after exercise. Research shows that it burns between 25-30% more calories than other forms of exercise.
Whilst regular HIIT can be harsh on joints, there are plenty of low impact versions out, which will allow you to get a sweat on while being kind to your joints. Low impact HIIT can involve movements such as medicine ball slams, tricep pulses, plank variations, and knee taps. If you’d like to give it a go, Well and Good has a 15-minute low impact HIIT workout that’s great for working muscles without sacrificing your joints.
The thought of exercising can be daunting if you suffer from joint pain. You might be fearful of getting injured, or of making any joint problems worse. But exercise is actually one of the best remedies for joint health. It helps to improve joint flexibility and function, strengthen the supporting muscles, and prevent stiffness.
However, some high impact sports, such as running, can place a lot of pressure on joints. It can therefore be beneficial to opt for low impact exercise options such as yoga, cycling, bowls, and aqua aerobics, which bring all the health benefits of regular exercise, but are also gentle on joints. You never know, when trying one of these activities, you might find a new hobby, a hidden talent or even a new circle of friends.
What are your favourite low impact activities? Have you tried anything new recently? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the sports and leisure section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.