Hopefully, you already know the importance of getting regular cardio exercise. After all, cardio is essential for keeping your heart healthy, says Jennifer Novak, MS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, performance recovery coach and founder of PEAK Symmetry Performance Strategies. And according to the CDC, regular cardio exercise — along with resistance training — can help reduce your risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and also prevent weight gain.
That said, joint discomfort and pain can make it tricky for some people to get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week. “The impact of ground reaction forces created by activities like running, on- or off-road cycling, and high-impact land aerobic exercise may aggravate [joint] tissue and cause inflammation and/or pain,” Novak says.
If you experience joint discomfort or pain during traditional cardio, you may want to add low-impact options to your routine.
Here are the best joint-friendly cardio activities to try.
Whether you choose to swim laps, take a water aerobics class or try an underwater treadmill, you’ll get a great cardio (and resistance) workout without stressing your joints. “Any [exercise] in the water is beneficial because the water offsets some of your body weight on the joints, while the drag forces add difficulty,” Novak explains.
Research even shows swimming can help reduce existing joint pain and stiffness. A 2016 study in The Journal of Rheumatology found swimming 45 minutes a day three days a week helped ease joint stiffness and pain in adults with osteoarthritis (OA) after three months.
The same study found cycling 45 minutes a day three days per week was just as effective as swimming for reducing OA-associated joint stiffness and pain. Plus, you can expect to burn roughly 210–311 calories during a 30-minute moderate-intensity session on a stationary bike. If pedaling on a stationary bike seems boring, consider taking a group cycling class.
Stand-up paddleboarding (also known as SUP) is a great cardio option if you live near open water. “Paddleboarding involves strenuous upper-extremity work, which may raise the heart rate quicker and keep it in cardiovascular ranges longer,” Novak says. In addition, SUP builds balance, coordination and core strength.
One caveat: Paddleboarding may not be a good fit for you if long periods of standing bother your back or hips, Novak says.
“Heavy bag boxing is a great way to get the heart rate elevated and tone and strengthen the arms,” Novak says. “It may also help with coordination, upper-body power and strength, and reaction time if done with coaching.”
Look for boxing clubs in your area and check with the instructor to make sure classes are appropriate for people with joint discomfort and pain.
Rowing, whether indoor or outdoor, gives you a great cardio workout without joint pain. Plus, if you keep your effort vigorous, you can burn 255–377 calories in 30 minutes, according to estimates from Harvard Health. That’s more than you’d burn by running at a pace of 5 miles per hour (that’s 12 minutes per mile) for the same length of time. One study in Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine found visually impaired people who rowed five days per week were able to lose fat and build fitness in just six weeks.
Similar to stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking involves significant upper-body work, and you’ll likely find your heart rate stays elevated for the duration of your session. However, kayaking has the similar caveat as SUP: It may not be a good fit for you if long periods of sitting cause back or hip pain, Novak says.
The elliptical is a classic gym machine for a reason: It offers a low-impact cardio workout that burns serious calories. Depending on your pace and how much you weigh, you may burn 270–400 calories during a 30-minute session. That’s equivalent to the burn from running at a pace of 5.2 miles per hour (that’s 11.5 minutes per mile) for the same length of time.