Best low impact exercises for injury recovery

If you either experience physical pain or are recovering from an injury, exercise can be aggravating and uncomfortable. Despite this, physical activity is essential for everyone. Moving your body brings so many health benefits, such as:

  • Reducing musculoskeletal pain
  • Mental wellbeing
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Balance
  • Overall strength

High-impact exercises may initially be difficult for some to begin with and could in fact be making your injuries worse. To ease back into physical activity, you may consider more low-impact exercises to promote recovery. Below are examples of five lower impact activities that you may like to try.

Elliptical training

elliptical machine
The elliptical machine is a piece of exercise equipment that is commonly seen in most fitness gyms. It can be best described as a standing cycle that allows you to perform a whole-body aerobic workout. Not only are you pushing through the resistance of the pedals but also alternating movement through your arms.

Although the elliptical machine targets multiple areas of the body, it is predominately utilized to develop the lower body regions, particularly the quadriceps. Compared to conventional jogging or even walking, users will experience significantly less impact and weight through the body. As users will have their feet fixed to the pedals, the vertical impact that occurs in jogging or walking is negated.

Overall, the elliptical machine should be used for those who have experienced any injuries, such as low back pain, ankle sprains, or knee injuries. If activities such as jogging are still too difficult, using the elliptical can be considered as a form of rehabilitation and low-impact exercise. However, those who have knee injuries may find it provocative and should consider trialing it with lower resistance.

Rowing Machine

The rowing machine is another staple piece of gym equipment. The rowing machine is a land-based machine that tries to mimic the outdoor-based activity that takes place on water. Despite being versatile and excellent for building muscle and bone strength, the rowing machine is often underutilized by many gym-goers.

Rowing can be considered the pinnacle of full-body workouts, working up to 86% of the muscles in your body. The rowing strokes can be separated into 2 components:

  1. Pushing the seat back after every stroke by using your leg muscles, such as your calves, quadriceps and glutes
  2. Pulling the handle back to your chest using your upper back and shoulder muscles, and biceps

People who take part in rowing also develop strength in their wrists/hand and throughout their entire core. For this reason, rowing is often considered one of the best aerobic exercises you can do.

Unlike normal rowing, which can be strenuous depending on weather conditions, rowing machines are indoor and within a controlled environment. Rowing machines are also close to the ground and add minimal stress to your joints, meaning there is a reduced risk of injuring yourself or causing you pain. Consequently, using the rowing machine is great for people with hip & knee pain, arthritis, and osteoporosis.

Cycling

man cycling
Stationary cycles or bikes are found in most gyms and aim to achieve the same benefits as outdoor cycling. Usually, gyms provide two types of stationary bikes, the upright and the recumbent (and maybe even a spin bike). Both allow you to develop your aerobic capacity, stamina and endurance, with the only major difference being comfort.

Recumbent bikes have a large seat and have you reclined into the bike frame with the pedals located in front of you. This makes them more comfortable and gentle on the knee and low back. This is a suitable option for those with back and knee pain. Additionally, the extra back support also helps reduce the fatigue experienced whilst riding a recumbent bike.

Upright bikes have a smaller seat and have you positioned straight with the pedals under you. This is very similar to your traditional bike and may place a bit more strain on your neck and back. However, the trade-off is that it provides a more intense workout compared to recumbent bikes.

Both bikes are extremely effective at targeting the muscular endurance of the legs, namely, your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and glutes. As you are elevated off the ground, you are also not compressing your joints like you would running or jogging.

Given that it is a low-impact activity, those experiencing joint pain would likely benefit.

Cycling can also be used to recover from injuries like ankle sprains and recovering hamstring strains, as you are not required to place the whole weight of the body through the leg.

Walking

woman walking
Walking is a great way to move the body and can help to regain confidence for everyday life. We often underestimate the power of a short walk. Taking a casual walk has many added benefits, such as burning calories, toning muscles, promoting healthy heart function, and improving mental health.

Not only is walking a safe and effective exercise, but it’s also convenient. Walking can be performed anywhere, any time and without the need for expensive equipment. Examples include meeting up with your friends, taking your dog out, or even between work breaks.

If you want to walk while you work you can also do that with small treadmills that fit under your work desk.

Walking involves all your leg muscles and can be modified to suit your current level of fitness. For example, you may want to challenge yourself by changing your walking pace or even choosing more uneven paths. Or perhaps you have pre-existing leg injuries. In this case, you may elect to walk on softer surfaces, such as grass or dry sand at a beach.

So if you feel sick of staying home or your mood is low, try to go out for a walk. The World Health Organization recommends that you should be walking around 25 minutes a day.

Swimming

Low impact exercises for injury recovery
Swimming is a great low-impact option for recovery because of water’s buoyancy.

This property of water reduces the effects of gravity which decreases the weight sustained by the body (e.g. muscles, joints etc.). Depending on your capacity, you can swim at any pace or intensity without having to strain your body.

Health professionals will often recommend swimming or hydrotherapy to those recovering from injuries, or those who cannot tolerate heavy impact activities.

Whatever your stroke preference, you will be using all the muscles in your body to maintain a horizontal position in the water. Upper body strength is important to pull you through the water and to control the direction of your swim. Additionally, your lower body movements help with propulsion and acceleration from behind. Throughout the swimming exercise, there is no direct high impact on your legs, therefore this exercise requires increased control of your own body system and is thus a great low-impact option.

With this one exercise, you can improve your aerobic fitness, overall endurance, and whole-body strength. Swimming is an excellent alternative to the other exercises above.

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Leon Mao
Leon Mao

Leon is an Australian physiotherapist who specializes in working with musculoskeletal conditions. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with his Doctorate in Physiotherapy before entering the workforce. He is now consulting from Top to Toe Health as a clinical and telehealth physiotherapist and primarily works with office-based workers and athletes. For any inquiries or further information, please visit Digital Physio.

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