Stiff or painful joints can be frustrating and get in the way of exercise plans. But staying active is essential for maintaining joint health.
Research shows that exercise can improve joint function and flexibility, strengthen surrounding muscles, and prevent stiffness. And, low-impact exercise is a great way to stay active while also protecting your joints.
Many people believe that taking part in high-intensity activities is the only way to reap the benefits of exercise. But research tells us that moderate-intensity, low-impact exercises (such as fast walking and yoga), are just as effective as high-intensity activities (like running) at lowering the risk of heart disease.
So, if you want to keep moving while still being kind to your joints, have a read of these 15 low-impact exercise ideas. From swimming and aqua aerobics to bowls and Tai Chi, hopefully there’ll be something to pique your interest.
1. Nordic walking
Nordic walking involves walking with specially designed poles. These poles provide additional support and stability, reduce pressure on joints, and turn walking into a full-body workout that engages 80%-90% of our upper body muscles.
One study found that pressure on joints from Nordic walking was significantly lower than regular walking – with a 28% reduction of pressure on knee joints. Plus, Nordic walking has been proven to support weight loss, tone muscles, boost circulation, improve cardiovascular health, and aid mental wellbeing. It can also be done anywhere and is suitable for all ages and fitness levels.
You can find out more about Nordic walking, including information about technique, equipment, and how to get involved with walking groups, in our beginner’s guide to Nordic walking.
You may think rowing only works the upper body, but it’s actually a full-body workout that uses 86% of your body’s muscles. It also burns between 250 and 450 calories every half an hour.
Despite providing a full-body burn, the best 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 study followed 24 rowers over a period of eight weeks and found that joint rotations in their elbows, lumbar, shoulders, and knees improved by about 30%.
Rowing machines are available on Amazon and can be found at most gyms (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 an effective way to build strong muscles that protect and support your joints. For example, research has shown that strength training can help to ease joint pain and stiffness, boost bone strength, improve balance, and help with healthy weight maintenance.
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.
For more information about strength training, including how to get started and what equipment to use, have a read of our articles; The importance of building strength and balance in your 50s and 60s and 11 best home gym equipment to boost your workouts.
Swimming helps to to reduce stress on joints because water buoyancy supports our body weight.
Research shows that buoyancy reduces the effects of gravity, so body weight decreases by 75-90%. Swimming also provides a full-body workout and can help to build endurance and muscle strength, improve flexibility and coordination, and alleviate stress.
You can target different muscles by alternating swimming strokes. Generally speaking, the best swimming strokes for stiff or sore joints are front crawl and backstroke, where your legs travel in a straight line.
Strokes such as breaststroke (which require sideways movements) are best avoided, as these can place stress on the outside of the knees.
Yoga helps to strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, and is also gentle on joints.
Therefore, 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 positions and movements than others. For example, dynamic yoga requires you to move through a sequence of poses in a lively and fluid way, whereas restorative yoga encourages physical, mental, and emotional relaxation.
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. Yoga Journal has a list of poses that are best for helping with joint pain.
You can learn more about yoga, including different variations, its benefits, and how to get started in our introduction to yoga. You may also like to sign up for one of the weekly yoga classes over on our Rest Less Events platform.
Cycling is a low-impact 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 because it places 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 for you and to make sure the saddle and handlebars are at the correct height. This will help you to adopt the correct cycling posture and avoid muscle strain.
You can find more information about cycling basics, how to pick the right bike, and getting involved in the cycling community in our beginner’s guide to cycling. Or, if you’re already a keen cyclist, you might be interested in our article; 9 beautiful cycle routes in the UK.
7. Walking netball
Walking netball is a slower-paced, slightly modified version of the regular game, which has evolved from a growing demand for walking sports.
Players must have one foot on the ground at all times, can hold the ball for up to four seconds, and are only allowed to take two steps after receiving the ball before passing it on. However, the overall aim of scoring more goals than the opposing team remains the same.
Walking netball maintains its competitive spirit but is much gentler on joints than regular netball – which involves lots of jumping, running, and twisting.
Walking netball is also a sociable game and offers the opportunity to feel part of a team. Clubs and sessions are popping up all over the country and you can search for opportunities to play walking netball near you on the Walking Sports website. Or, for more information, you might like to read our introduction to walking netball.
8. Lawn bowls
Lawn bowls can be enjoyed by people of all ages and experience levels. The aim is to roll 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. Most bowls clubs also provide non-bowling activities, such as whist drives and quiz nights, too – so it can be a good way to meet new people.
If you’re interested in joining a bowls club, you can search for a club near you on the Bowls England website.
9. Aqua aerobics
Aqua aerobics is a fun low-impact activity done mostly in waist-deep water. 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. For this reason, it’s a popular choice for people with joint problems, chronic pain, or who are recovering from injury.
Aqua aerobics is also effective in building muscle strength and boosting endurance. Plus, it 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 near you, here.
You don’t have to be a particularly strong swimmer to participate in aqua aerobics classes, as they’re often conducted in the shallow end of the pool and buoyancy aids can be used when necessary. However, as with all water-based activities, being a confident swimmer will allow you to feel more comfortable in the pool and get the most from your workout.
10. 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, but the main difference is that kayaks are enclosed while 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. Other benefits of kayaking and canoeing include increased muscle strength, improved cardiovascular fitness, and the peaceful, meditative nature of the activity.
Canoeing and kayaking can be done as a hobby, a fun holiday activity, or a competitive sport, and you can paddle in lakes, canals, rivers, or 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 kayaking, including basic equipment, useful resources, and health and safety in our introduction to kayaking, and more about canoeing on the Better Health website.
11. Zumba Gold
Zumba gold is a modified form of Zumba that is lower intensity. The choreography is gentler on joints, and much easier to keep up with too.
Zumba Gold is done to music and movements are often inspired by salsa dancing, the 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 on the official Zumba website.
12. 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 practised 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 less pain and improved ability to carry out daily activities after practising Tai Chi for 12 weeks compared with those who hadn’t.
Research also suggests that Tai Chi can help to delay the onset of osteoarthritis.
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 to its benefits and how to get started. Or, why not check out our article; 6 popular martial arts to learn later in life?
13. Walking football
If you love football but struggle to play because of painful joints, then walking football could be for you.
Walking football is exactly as described and follows the same rules as regular football. The only difference being that players aren’t allowed to run – they must keep 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 stress on joints, walking can help to improve joint function and flexibility. The slower-paced version of the game also reduces harsh contact and the chance of injury.
Our introduction to walking football has plenty of information on how to get started.
Bowling might not come to mind as a traditional sport, but it’s a great low-impact activity.
With the aim of knocking pins over with your ball, bowling doesn’t involve any large jolting movements. It’s soft on the knees, doesn’t put a strain on elbows or wrists, and the risk of injury is small.
It might not seem like a particularly taxing sport, but research shows that bowling has many health benefits. For example, it can improve flexibility, help to relieve stress, and is effective at stretching and strengthening muscles across the body, including the arms and legs.
Plus, a bowler walks approximately one kilometre during a three-game series, so you’ll be getting some steps in too. Bowling can also be done as part of a team, so it’s a popular way to socialise.
If you’re interested in taking up bowling, you can search for your nearest bowling alley on the Go Tenpin website. Alternatively, you could consider joining the British Tenpin Bowling Association and compete in tournaments.
15. 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.
This type of training supports 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.
While regular HIIT can be harsh on joints, there are plenty of low-impact versions out there that’ll 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 + Good has a 15-minute low-impact HIIT workout.
The thought of exercising can be daunting if you suffer from joint pain. You might be fearful of getting injured or making any joint problems worse. But, research has consistently shown that gentle exercise is actually one of the best remedies for joint health. It can help to improve joint flexibility and function, strengthen the supporting muscles, and prevent stiffness.
Plus, you never know, when trying a new activity, you might find a new hobby, hidden talent, or even a new circle of friends.
To get started with some of these activities or to try others, you might like to sign up to Rest Less Events for free. Here, you can try low impact classes such as Tai Chi, yoga, and Pilates – and even get involved in dance workouts led by Mr Motivator himself.
There are also plenty more suggestions for ways to stay active on the fitness and exercise section of our website.
What are your favourite low impact activities? Have you tried anything new recently? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.