I’m a big fan of low-impact HIIT, and in this article I’ll explain what these high-intensity workouts are made of and how you can easily do them at home or wherever you want.
My slightly creaky 64 year-old body demands low-impact workouts, and the healthy dude part of me loves the benefits that high-intensity workouts provide.
So what makes a workout low-impact HIIT?
A low-impact HIIT workout simply combines two different workout types into one workout.
Low-impact exercise is easy on your joints & bones, and high-intensity interval training has been proven to improve your health & fitness in a number of ways.
Combining these two qualities makes this type of workout accessible for everyone, including seniors & beginners who are new to fitness.
In the coming sections we’ll take a closer look at what makes these workouts both low-impact and high-intensity.
Later I’ll provide several low-impact HIIT exercise choices for you, and share some of low-impact HIIT’s excellent health benefits.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Features of a low impact HIIT workout
As I mentioned earlier, a low-impact HIIT workout is made up of two pieces, low-impact & high-intensity.
Let’s look at each part in a little more detail here.
The low impact part of it
When used to describe a particular workout’s quality, low-impact simply means that the type of exercise being performed causes very little (if any) impact shock stress to your joints, bones, & tendons.
Impact shock here refers to the force of your feet landing back down on the floor or ground after you’ve lifted them during exercise.
Some exercises are considered high-impact because at some point during your movement, both of your feet are airborne.
Examples of high-impact exercise include running, jumping, aerobic dance, many plyometric drills, and so on.
There are very good benefits that come from doing high-impact exercises.
But unfortunately there are millions of us with joint or bone issues such as:
- chronic soreness or stiffness
- hip or knee pain
- osteopenia & the like
High-impact exercises are not an option for people with these conditions.
That type of exercise is often too painful to do, plus it can make health matters worse to boot.
Low-impact exercise to the rescue
Fortunately, there are a whole lot of ways to work out that involve low-impact exercises.
In a later section I’ll provide a long list of these exercises, all of which can easily be used in your low-impact HIIT workout.
It’s like I said earlier: a low-impact exercise puts little to no impact shock stress on our joints.
This quality makes it ideal for us to use in our workouts.
We can exercise pain-free, which will allow us to exercise for longer periods of time.
And this in turn can provide us with the many benefits of a physically active lifestyle.
My strategy for hours of pain-free exercise per week
Here over 60 I’m usually get around 4-5 hours per week of exercise…more when I’m off on a surf safari.
And for the most part I am pain-free all the time.
Sure, my muscles get a little sore from working out, paddling a surfboard for hours, or hiking with a loaded backpack. But that happened when I was in my 30s too, though not as noticeable.
However my joints no longer bother me like they did for years when I was doing all of these same activities in my late 40s & 50s.
1. I quit all high-impact cardio
I gave up the running and any other high-impact aerobics, and switched to low-impact cardio like my Xiser mini-stepper workouts I share a little later in this article. Besides those, I also do paddling sprints in our swim spa on a surfboard with a tether.
2. I started supplementing with collagen & curcumin
I heard anecdotal info from people on the ability of both collagen peptides and curcumin to reduce joint inflammation.
So I tracked down & read the available research in the National Library of Medicine.
I found joint pain studies like one at Penn State that used athletes, and researchers found that joint pain was reduced & mobility increased after taking collagen for 24 weeks.
I’ve bought a handful of collagen peptide brands and have written product reviews of those I thought were the cream of the crop. You can find those articles in the Fitness Supplements category listed at the top of this page.
My wife & I started drinking one of them made by Orgain, mainly because it’s usually cheaper than the other top-quality brands. You can click on the pic below to open a separate tab if you want to read buyer reviews on Orgain.com, where they often offer big discounts.
And curcumin research has shown it can provide several health benefits too, including the reduction of arthritis pain & inflammation.
My wife — who has worked on medical clinical trials for nearly 30 years — had arthritic symptoms that had flared up.
She was keen on helping me get through the mountain of curcumin research at PubMed, so we could dial in the right ingredients at the optimal dosage.
After absorbing the info, we decided it was worth it to give them both a try. I added curcumin & collagen to my daily nutrition routine to hopefully experience benefits similar to their clinical studies.
Bottom line: Voilá, after 2-3 months of taking collagen, curcumin, & avoiding high-impact cardio, most of my joint pain was gone.
I took both collagen peptides & curcumin for 2 years, then stopped the collagen. In the 18 months since, I haven’t felt any recurrence of that previous joint pain.
The curcumin supplement we settled on taking is CurcuminMD made by 1MD.org, a company headed by four practicing physicians in the L.A. area.
We buy it directly from them on a Subscribe & Save deal instead of at Amazon, because we save $20 a bottle doing so (that’s $40 a month saved between the two of us!).
Many of the hundreds of turmeric/curcumin products being heavily marketed at us these days are just plain ineffective.
I’ve researched the research of this supplement heavily, and I go into detail on how to separate the “wheat from the chaff” in my article Best Curcumin Supplements.
The HIIT part of it
High-intensity interval training consists of two features itself, high intensity and interval training.
Interval training tells you that the exercise is made up of a series of short periods of time that change from one thing to the next.
Most forms of interval training often involve quickly changing from one exercise to another, with minimal rest periods in between.
In the case of HIIT, you may or may not change exercises. That depends on your choice of the workout you want.
What changes is your intensity level.
The highs & lows of HIIT
HIIT involves a series of short periods of high intensity effort, each followed by a low-intensity recovery period.
Unless you’re an elite athlete, it’s highly recommended that your rest/recovery period be twice as long as your high-intensity active period.
You repeat this sequence of high-to-low over the course of several minutes.
(A bit later on I provide a link to articles I’ve written here on heydayDo that get into the hows & whats of HIIT workout programs.)
It’s called high for a reason
The phrase high-intensity means that maximum physical effort is required by you while you’re doing it.
In simplest terms you’re “giving it your all” during the high-intensity portions of the HIIT workout.
Note that you have to go all-out during the high-intensity portion of each set for it to be effective.
Your heart rate goes way up, hopefully to 80-90% of its maximum.
This is the ideal range where all of the benefits you’ve heard about HIIT workouts come your way.
What to do during the low-intensity recovery time
With regards to the recovery period – also called the active rest period – there are a couple of ways you can approach how you spend that time.
If you’re using a cardio machine and you’re fit enough, you can continue to pedal/row/step, whatever it is.
But of course do it at a very low level of intensity, since it is there to give you the time to recover in time for the next high-intensity interval coming up.
If you’re doing a circuit of different bodyweight exercises during the work portions, you can reduce that to walking at a medium pace or some similar low-impact low-intensity bodyweight activity.
Some people aren’t able to do anything but stop moving for a little while (like me**) during their recovery period, due to their fitness level or other health limitation.
That’s fine, just ease back into a low-intensity form of your HIIT exercise before the high-intensity section begins if you can.
** – As a perfect example of this:
Due to my congenital heart defect, I have to stop using my hydraulic stepper during my recovery intervals following the high-intensity work portions of my low-impact HIIT workouts.
My heart rate won’t back down properly unless I chill out completely during my recovery minute.
Any way you want to HIIT it is OK
You can perform your entire workout using just one exercise, or you can switch exercises as I mentioned earlier; that part’s up to you.
As I’ll show you later, there are dozens of ways you can do a low-impact HIIT workout.
(For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing mine on the Xiser mini-stepper.)
And you can easily do it at home or at a gym, at a park, in the yard…wherever.
You can use a cardio exercise machine if you have one handy, or you can use just your own body.
You’ll see that you can add (very) light dumbbells to your workout if you want, & use things in your home like a wall or a chair.
The only rule here is that when it’s the high-intensity portions of the workout, you’re putting in your highest level of effort.
Low impact HIIT workout options
Here are several exercises that can be used in your low-impact HIIT routine.
You can use a cardio exercise machine
Any of these common pieces of exercise equipment are great for low-impact HIIT workouts:
- Elliptical machine
- Rowing machine
- Stationary bike, upright or recumbent
- Hydraulic mini-stepper (this is one of the two things I use)
- Vertical climber machine
- Aerobic stepper (like the gal in the photo earlier)
You can use your own body weight
No equipment? No problem.
Right in your own living room you can have a very nice low-impact HIIT workout using just your body.
Check out this brochure put out by the American College of Sports Medicine.
It’s a circuit of 12 exercises you can perform in your home, using just your body and a couple of household items.
Even the simple act of walking can be deployed for HIIT, including walking in place indoors.
Just follow the basic HIIT principle:
- an all-out active period where you really get truckin’, followed by
- a recovery period that’s twice as long where you slow it way down
Rinse & repeat for the desired period of time.
Swimming is considered one of the best low-impact exercises around, which makes it ideal for low-impact HIIT workouts too.
My wife can no longer run or even go on long hikes anymore because it’ll usually kick in some low-back nerve pain.
So she switched gears and now does her exercise in our swim spa. She uses the HIIT principles I passed along to her to increase her workouts’ benefits, and her weekly exercise is mostly pain-free.
Most of my weekly HIIT cardio these days is also done in the pool. I do paddling sprints on one of my surfboards:
Benefits of HIIT
Here are references to just a few of the many sports science organizations & clinical research studies that have shined a light on the benefits of low-impact HIIT.
The ACSM is a big believer in HIIT’s benefits
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is the organization that oversees the Physical Activity Guidelines that is distributed by our US Dept. of Health.
This mighty document is referenced daily in online articles published by the likes of the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical, The Center For Disease Control (CDC), & the American Heart Association.
In other words, they’re at the top of the health & fitness food chain in our country.
And they love HIIT.
Here are a few bullet points’ worth of health benefits that doing HIIT workouts regularly can provide you, courtesy of this document that they published:
- improved aerobic and anaerobic fitness
- improved insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and lipid profiles
- reduced arterial stiffness and improved blood pressure
- increased skeletal muscle fat oxidation
- reduced abdominal and subcutaneous fat
- increased exercise adherence
Saves you a lot of time
21 minutes of HIIT per week is as good as 135 minutes of regular cardio. (1)
HIIT turns back the clock
Senior adults who performed HIIT reversed aging processes in their DNA. (2)
Me in the middle of a low-impact HIIT workout on my Xiser Mini-Stairmaster.
HIIT for weight loss & increased fitness
In this HIIT weight loss study the participants who did the HIIT program lost more weight and had significant improvements to their cardiovascular abilities, compared to the control group (non-HIIT).
And in this study, those performing HIIT continued to burn calories at a high rate even hours after their workout, thanks to HIIT boosting their metabolism.
Low-impact HIIT workout plans
I wrote a detailed article on the length of HIIT workouts posted here on heydayDo: How Long Should A HIIT Workout Be.
In it I built several workouts of various periods of time (9, 12, 15, 18, & 30 minutes each), using different lengths for the high-intensity portions of each set too (15, 30, & 60 seconds each).
Give them a ‘look-see’ if you need a little guidance building your own low-impact HIIT workout routine.
Low-impact HIIT FAQ
Here are answers to a few of the more common questions people ask regarding low-impact/high-intensity training.
How much HIIT should I do?
With HIIT, you have a wide range of workout length to work with. Aim for over 20 minutes and somewhere less than 40 minutes per week. That’s per week NOT per day, & don’t do HIIT on consecutive days.
Is HIIT safe for seniors?
Medical authority Mayo Clinic says that HIIT workouts can be beneficial for older adults with their physician’s approval, pointing to studies that showed fitness improvements in a number of areas.
More on HIIT workout length
By the way, the reason you don’t want to be doing high-intensity interval workouts on consecutive days is because your body needs a couple of days to recover if you’re doing it properly with 80-90% maximum effort.
On the low side, 15-20 minutes per week
On the low end of the workout length, this clinical study using stationary bikes clearly demonstrated that just three 7-minute low-impact HIIT workouts per week (21 minutes total per week) yielded the same cardio & metabolic benefits as 2 hours and 15 minutes of regular steady-state stationary bike exercise.
On the high side, 30-40 minutes MAX per week
On the high end of the range, it is strongly recommended that you keep your weekly total of low-impact HIIT well under 50 minutes per week.
Otherwise you could compromise your health.
A prominent HIIT workout study conducted by HIIT experts at Les Mills Lab and Jinger Gottschall from Penn State’s kinesiology department stated:
“Research shows that 30-40 minutes of training with your heart rate above 90 percent is a suggested maximum cumulative time per week, in order to prevent symptoms of overreaching.”
They define the symptoms of overreaching — which are very similar to what us veteran strength trainers know as overtraining — as:
- becoming chronically fatigued
- dwindling benefits
- becoming more injury prone
If you’re interested in a closer look at HIIT workout lengths and the recommended weekly amounts, here’s the link again to that article of mine on this very topic: How Long Should A HIIT Workout Be.
More on HIIT safety
As I mentioned earlier, medical experts at the Mayo Clinic certainly think HIIT’s good for older adults, saying
“What type of training helps most, especially when you’re older – say over 65? A Mayo Clinic study says it’s high-intensity aerobic exercise, which can reverse some cellular aspects of aging.”
They conducted a clinical study on HIIT’s benefits using people who were over 65. The people had reversals to a number of their aging processes thanks to their low-impact HIIT workouts.
Mayo says that (obviously) an older person should get their doctor’s OK to start a low-impact HIIT routine.
But they also go on to mention that low-impact HIIT has been shown to be a good exercise alternative for people with various chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and others.
A HIIT workout guide for older adults is here
I wrote an article here on heydayDo called HIIT For Seniors.
It goes into more detail on how easy it is for an older adult to put this very beneficial workout approach into practice for themselves, offers additional exercise options, & more.
Give it a peek if you’re interested.
Sample low-impact HIIT workout video
This is one of hundreds of videos out there that combine low-impact & HIIT.
I hope this article on low-impact HIIT is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.