If you’ve glanced at a gym schedule or your ClassPass app recently, you’ve probably noticed a wide variety of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) choices. Everything from CrossFit and cardiovascular plyometrics fall under this category, as do sprint workouts like Barry’s Bootcamp and interval-infused routines like SoulCycle, CycleBar, and most Peloton classes.
However, fitness experts and researchers concur: you don’t need to push yourself so hard to reap significant wellness advantages. While HIIT routines and classes are still highly sought after, word is gradually spreading about the potential benefits you can achieve from lower-impact alternatives as well.
Continue reading to discover more about how to work more intelligently rather than more strenuously—and still attain substantial muscle, mental health, and longevity benefits.
Comprehending HIIT and Its Popularity
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an exercise technique that employs alternating periods of brief, vigorous exercise with less-intense recovery periods, elucidates Christopher Gagliardi, a San Diego, California-based scientific education content manager for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). These workouts can involve cardiovascular, muscular training, or both.
The exertion intervals are “designed to elevate your heart rate for short bursts that really challenge you to your maximum,” adds Katie Dunlop, a Laguna Beach, California-based certified personal trainer, sports nutrition specialist, and the founder of Love Sweat Fitness and the MOVE app. Within approximately 30 seconds during the “on” intervals, HIIT enthusiasts should be nearly breathless and at around 80 to 90 percent of maximum effort, adds Dunlop. Skipping rope, box jumps, sprints, and burpees are all examples of traditional HIIT MVPs.
Between each intense segment, HIIT workouts incorporate short recovery periods of less intense movements to create an interval circuit-style routine, says Carissa Fernandez, a Denver, Colorado-based Club Pilates master trainer.
“When you know that rest is forthcoming, you can go all out—which can be more motivating than a traditional slow-paced workout,” adds ShaNay Norvell, a NSPA-certified personal trainer at Fuel Fitness Studio in Atlanta, Georgia.
If your schedule is overflowing, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can be a blessing, Gagliardi adds: “HIIT provides equal and superior outcomes in less time when compared to numerous other training programs. In other words, you can obtain the same advantages as you would from traditional exercise programs, just in a shorter period. This addresses the perceived shortage of time that many individuals cite as the reason for not exercising regularly.”
There are also several other validated benefits of HIIT:
Benefits of HIIT include:
Improve mood and decreased feelings of depression and anxiety
Reduce the risk of breast cancer
Decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease
Boost metabolic rate
Lower the risk for osteoarthritis
Decrease the risk of metabolic syndrome
Assist in relieving low back pain
Reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes
Lower the risk of colon cancer
Decrease the likelihood of falls for older adults
The Rise of Lower Impact Exercise
Low-impact training involves any physical activity that places minimal stress and force on your joints, says Michelle Parolini, NASM-CPT, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based manager of coach development for Row House.
“Sprinting on a treadmill, burpees, and jumping jacks are all high-impact exercises that add stress to the joints,” Parolini says. “Low-impact exercises can extend the longevity of your fitness routine because they are gentler on the body and typically involve keeping at least one foot on the ground at all times.” (Seated activities are also low-impact.)
Gagliardi says that sometimes people confuse low-impact with moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) or low-intensity steady state (LISS) training, which involves continuous exercise at a moderate or low and sustainable intensity. But it’s worth noting that “low impact” does not necessarily mean “low intensity,” and not all HIIT workouts are high-impact. Parolini’s beloved rowing, for instance, is an excellent example of a mode of exercise that can be low impact and high intensity. Cycling can be similar. Both allow you to exert yourself and achieve HIIT-style training without impacting your joints.
It’s important to distinguish between low-impact activities and lower-intensity activities when compared to HIIT.
“Low-impact is gentle on the joints, but does not always indicate the intensity of the exercise from the perspective of how hard your heart is working,” he clarifies. “Walking is considered a low-impact exercise, but it can be performed at various intensities based on your speed and incline. High-intensity walking can also enhance fitness. Low-impact exercise can lead to the same health and fitness benefits as HIIT, but the workout will be longer and the benefits may take longer to achieve.
Joint Health and Reduced Risk of Injury
As we mentioned, a simple method to recall what low-impact workouts encompass is anything seated or that can be executed with one foot on the ground at all times.
“Without plyometrics or leaping, low-impact workouts involve less impact on the joints and are safer for those who may have knee, ankle, or joint problems,” says Norvell.
Considering the fact that about 1 in 10 Americans presently have osteoarthritis or degeneration of joint cartilage between bones, low-impact workouts can provide some significant relief. (This is just one instance of numerous conditions that can be worsened by high-impact exercise.)
“Low-impact workouts are less likely to cause overuse injuries or burnout,” says Parolini. Parolini used to swear by boot camp-style training; complete with “endless box jumps, treadmill sprints, and burpees. My neck and knees always bothered me, and I thought that was par for the course.”
That is until she was introduced to the rowing machine. Parolini switched her HIIT workouts to a low-impact environment, and this transition has allowed her to “keep the intensity level up while decreasing pain, mitigating injury, improving overall body strength, increasing range of motion and core engagement, and giving me overall better health.”
Stress Relief and Mind-Body Connection
Especially if you do HIIT workouts out of feelings of obligation rather than joy, Fernandez states that these high-intensity and high-impact routines can raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Beyond contributing to your existing stress levels, over time, high cortisol can influence everything from mental health to risk of heart disease to muscle and bone strength, the Cleveland Clinic confirms.
And if a sweat sesh doesn’t generate joy, it’s going to be something you want to get away from rather than tune into. The mind-muscle connection is crucial to help you get the most out of your workouts physically. At the same time, the mind-body connection is one of the main reasons why exercise plays a vital role in our mental health. If your mind is elsewhere besides your movements, you’ll be at an increased risk for injury and won’t be able to gain as much from every minute.
Low-impact workouts like yoga or Tai Chi concentrate on linking each motion with mindfulness in a way that aligns all of the aforementioned—and often assists in lowering overall stress levels rather than raising them.
Long-Term Durability and Injury Healing
We cannot be the sole individuals who have awakened the morning after a challenging Tabata plyometrics session or a CrossFit WOD like Mary only to discover that our muscles are pleading for mercy—and an unplanned day off.
Low-impact workouts are ideal for many individuals because the time needed for recovery between sessions may be shorter. “By incorporating low-impact workouts into your routine, you are able to maintain consistent activity without placing excessive strain on your body, allowing you to stay active without as many setbacks,” explains Parolini.
Additionally, athletes recuperating from injuries who still desire high-intensity strength and cardio workouts can choose a low-impact version of a HIIT workout. (Find more on this below in “How to Make the Switch”).
Before shedding 45 pounds and becoming a certified personal trainer, Dunlop confesses that she attempted “every training style—most of which were HIIT or gym-based. I would go all out for a couple of weeks and become drained or be too sore to engage in any activity for a few days, thus being unable to establish a sustainable fitness routine.”
When Dunlop began incorporating low-impact training days into her schedule, she felt “much more balanced mentally and physically. My cortisol levels decreased, and I noticed improvements in my overall body composition. I was also able to remain consistent because I wasn’t always working at full capacity. Not to mention, those training days provided me with more opportunities to exercise with friends, going for hikes or walks on the beach.”
Inclusiveness and Accessibility
From beginners to older adults to individuals with limited mobility, low-impact workouts offer a wide range of options.
“Low-impact workouts are accessible to individuals of all fitness levels because they provide a gradual and manageable approach. As fitness levels increase, low-impact exercises can be adjusted in terms of intensity, duration, and range of motion to align with current abilities,” says Parolini.
Imagine starting with a leisurely walk on the treadmill. After three months of consistent training, you might be prepared to add some incline. Then, three months later, you may be ready to incorporate some higher-speed intervals (for example, 1 MPH for 30 seconds every 10 minutes).
Norvell, for instance, found herself transitioning from HIIT training sessions to prepare for half-marathons to lower-impact alternatives now that she’s in her 40s. “My knees feel better, and I can still engage in more intense training and reap the benefits in terms of cardiovascular endurance and strength, just with less impact,” says Norvell.
Balancing Intensity and Recovery
Everyone can gain from exercise, says Gagliardi, but those benefits only accumulate if it’s something you can stick with. Even if you swear by HIIT occasionally, your body might appreciate some lower-impact sessions in the mix.
Whether it’s a walk or mobility flow as part of your active rest or a high-intensity, low-impact bodyweight or dumbbell strength routine, this is a smart strategy to achieve a balance between intense workouts and sufficient recovery periods.
(If you missed it, here are three authentic reasons why active recovery is so significant, in addition to precisely how to include some into your training timetable.)
“Determining the appropriate quantity and intensity of physical activity necessary to achieve optimal adherence is essential,” declares Gagliardi.
How to Transition
Whether you engage in HIIT or MICT, you will attain the same advantages, as stated by Gagliardi—however, the time required to obtain those results will vary.
To provide some context, let’s consider a hypothetical journey to Alaska (assuming you reside in the contiguous 48 states). You can fly there from your nearest airport, or you can opt to travel to Seattle and embark on a scenic cruise to reach your destination. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous and love road trips, you can fuel up your vehicle and drive. There is no universally “correct” answer; it all depends on your objectives.
“In essence, you aim to reach a destination, but you have multiple options for getting there,” explains Gagliardi, and the same applies to fitness approaches.
To determine the ideal combination of exercise methods, including levels of intensity and impact, Gagliardi frequently asks clients the following questions:
- What strategies have you previously attempted to achieve your health objectives?
- What types of physical activities do you enjoy?
- What obstacles do you anticipate hindering your health-related goals?
- How much time would you ideally allocate to your weekly workout sessions?
For certain individuals, HIIT provides the solution and is suitable for all training sessions. However, Gagliardi advises that MICT may be the better choice for others. A combination of HIIT and MICT, with the addition of some LIIS, could be the most optimal option.
“Another alternative is reduced-exertion high-intensity interval training (REHIIT), which is an evolution of HIIT that shortens the duration and creates a workout that feels less demanding,” suggests Gagliardi.
This modification would allow your HIIT routine to be less physically strenuous and potentially more socially engaging since you would be able to hold a somewhat conversational level of breath.
According to Dunlop, for most people, a blend of both approaches is the most effective way to achieve results and establish a sustainable fitness plan.
“Engaging in excessive HIIT might result in burnout or overexertion, leading to injuries. On the other hand, an excess of low-impact activities may become tedious, and you may not observe the desired physical changes in terms of body composition,” explains Dunlop. “Personally, I always incorporate at least two days of low-intensity workouts into my weekly routine to allow my body to recover from more intense sessions.”
Here’s an example of how this approach could be implemented:
- Monday: 30-minute HIIT workout with high impact (source)
- Tuesday: 40-minute MICT workout (rowing, indoor cycling, jogging, strength training, etc.)
- Wednesday: 30-minute HIIT workout with low impact (source)
- Thursday: Active recovery day (walk, yoga, foam rolling, mobility exercises, etc.)
- Friday: 40-minute MICT workout (rowing, indoor cycling, jogging, strength training, etc.)
Saturday: 60-minute LIIS workout (trek, cycle, elliptical, etc.)
From diminished risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes to remarkable calorie expenditure, HIIT workout advantages are plentiful. Additionally, they are highly time-efficient if your schedule is packed. However, you can achieve all of those benefits from lower-intensity options if you dedicate a bit more time.
For some fitness enthusiasts, it might seem like the sole way to achieve your objectives is to exert yourself at 100 percent during every session. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. Low-intensity, HIIT workouts provide an environment for ongoing progress and overall fitness,” states Parolini.
Lower-intensity workouts are adaptable, sustainable, and an outstanding choice for those looking to prevent or recover from injury. They are also excellent for fostering a sense of community (since you may occasionally have the opportunity to converse!) and might be more enjoyable for certain groups. “Everyone can gain from incorporating lower-intensity movement into their training,” confirms Parolini.
The increasing interest in lower-intensity options among HIIT enthusiasts indicates that we are taking a long-term approach. Rather than fixating on achieving maximum calorie expenditure in the shortest amount of time, integrating some low-intensity elements into your training schedule can support joint health, long-term sustainability of physical activity, various fitness objectives, stress relief, and inclusivity. Whether they are done alongside or in place of HIIT programs, individuals who used to swear by HIIT can benefit from incorporating lower-intensity exercises into their fitness routine.