Exercise is good for your body and mind. Getting regular exercise can lead to weight reduction, improved heart health, sharper mind, and better mood. But deciding to get exercise is only part of the question. The other part is figuring out what’s the right exercise for you.
In general, exercises are usually divided into three basic categories: high impact, low impact, and no impact. These classifications don’t refer to the level of exercise, but rather the amount of jarring the exercises inflict on your body.
Criteria for the Perfect Exercise
The most important thing about picking an exercise is finding one that you really want to do. An exercise that you’re going to find every excuse to avoid is more likely to be one that you won’t keep up enough to see benefit.
Next, find an exercise that is an adequate challenge. You want to elevate your heart rate up to 60-80% of your maximum for about 30 minutes or so. There are smartphone apps that can help you get a good estimate on your maximum heart rate. For a more accurate measurement, talk to your doctor about a metabolic study. For a quick-and-dirty number, subtract your age from 220 (but be aware this is very, very rough).
Finally, the exercise has to be appropriate to your health, including your joint health, muscle health, and heart health.
In summary, the right exercise is:
High impact exercises are ones in which both your feet are off the ground at once, which means that your body will come down with a high impact, jarring your muscles, bones, and joints. This includes running, jumping, hopping, jumping rope, plyometrics, and any kind of competitive sport that involves these activities.
These exercises are for people who have good general health, especially joint health. They can be very effective at pushing your heart rate higher if you have trouble raising it with other types of exercise. These can also be especially enjoyable, which can sometimes tempt people into risking injury when they’re not fit enough for this type of exercise.
Low-impact exercises are ones in which one foot leaves the ground at a time. This includes walking, hiking, most kinds of step aerobics, and rollerblading. Depending on how you do it, these can be as good as high-impact exercise at raising your heart rate, but often they result in lower exertion levels.
These exercises are appropriate for people who are beginners. They are also good for people who are trying to protect temporomandibular or other joint health, have osteoarthritis, obesity, or connective tissue diseases. They’re also appropriate for older adults and pregnant women.
No-impact exercise are those where you aren’t actually stepping at all. Cycling, elliptical machine, water aerobics, swimming, seated workouts, Pilates, and yoga are all no-impact exercise. These exercises are great for people who have seriously compromised muscle, bone, or joint health, or those who are very unfit but want to start working out.
But they’re also for people who love them, and there are many great workouts in this category of exercise.
Mix and Match
Of course, there’s nothing saying that you have to stick to just one type of exercise. In fact, there’s good evidence supporting the use of multiple types of exercise, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. Mixing exercise types is a good way to, for example, get the exertion of high-impact exercise some days, but without punishing your joints on a daily basis.
And of course the most important thing is: no matter what exercise you pick, you have to get out and do it!
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Dr. Matthew B. Candelaria (PhD, U of Kansas 2006) is a freelance writer who works mostly on health and fitness topics, including exercise, weight loss, nutrition, primary care medicine, and dentistry.