Who says you need to join a gym or pound the streets to get fit? Be kind to your joints with our pick of the best low-impact exercises. We reveal the health and fitness benefits of different activities, from swimming and cycling to Aqua Zumba and dancing.
You don't need to spend money on fancy equipment (though a good pair of trainers is a must) to improve your fitness levels. A brisk 30-minute walk, three times a week is all you need. And because walking is a weight-bearing exercise, it can help to prevent the bone disease osteoporosis, making it a good choice for women as they age. Experts recommend that we take 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) for peak fitness, yet the average Briton walks less than half that.
If you're new to walking, a pedometer can be a great investment. They only cost a few pounds and will measure how many steps you take during the day – giving you a goal to work towards. Start by walking moderately for 10 to 20 minutes every day, then once you become fitter, aim to walk for 30 minutes with one or two rest days. As your fitness improves, include one or two sessions a week at a brisk pace.
Why it's good for you: A 30-minute walk can burn between 90 and 200 calories, depending on your speed and how much you weigh. Researchers in America found that people who walked briskly for 30 to 60 minutes a day lost weight - even if they ate the same amount. The benefits don't stop there. Studies show that walking for 30 minutes, three days a week, can lower your blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as improve your mood and alleviate depression.
Swimming is the ultimate low-impact exercise. As water supports 90 per cent of our body weight, it allows you to exercise without putting any stress or strain on your joints – which makes it an excellent choice for those recovering from an injury, pregnant women, the overweight, older people and those with arthritis. To improve your fitness levels, try interval training. For example, swim a couple of lengths at a gentle breast stroke, then swim a length using front crawl – as you get fitter, increase the number of high-intensity fast lengths and reduce the number of 'rest' lengths.
Why it's good for you: As well as being a great cardiovascular workout, swimming also acts as a resistance exercise (water is around twelve times as dense as air), so helps to tone muscles, including the abdominals, and build strength. Depending on your weight and speed, you will burn around 60 calories for every 10 minutes of breast stroke, 80 for backstroke and 100 for front crawl.
If you enjoy being in the water but find swimming lengths boring, why not take an aqua dance class instead? Water aerobics is a fun, low-impact way to get fit – and you don't need to be an elite synchronised swimmer to take part. Aqua Zumba – based on the popular dance exercise craze set to Latin music – is a perfect choice and with more classes springing up around the country, you should be able to find one near you. With the same Latin dance moves found in conventional Zumba classes, such as the Cha-Cha, Merengue, Salsa and Mambo, you'll enjoy a high-intensity and exhilarating workout that's also safe, even for those who have problems standing on their feet or joint problems.
Why it's good for you: Aqua Zumba offers a good cardio workout along with increased muscle training thanks to the resistance offered by the water. As well as burning calories, you can also expect to laugh and have fun – the upbeat music is infectious and once in the water your body is hidden, so you are free to shake your thing without feeling self-conscious.
Yoga and Pilates
Yoga can be a benefit to everyone - but it's worth finding the right class to meet your needs (there are even ones for pregnant women and mums and babies). If you're not sure which to try, 'Hatha' is a good choice. Placing an emphasis on postures with slow-paced stretching, breathing and relaxation, it's suitable for all ages and abilities, making it ideal for beginners.
Similar to yoga, Pilates focuses on developing the body's core strength and can be beneficial for those with back problems – both to strengthen and prevent injury and for rehabilitation. Whatever class you choose, check the teacher's qualifications before you sign up. British Wheel of Yoga teachers have trained for two to three years and should be up-to-date with current safety guidelines and best practises. Yoga and Pilates are both low-impact and can be done with existing health problems - speak to your teacher who can modify poses to suit your specific needs.
Why it's good for you: The benefits of yoga have been celebrated for thousands of years – and it's been credited with everything from lowering blood pressure to helping alleviate stress and depression. Yoga strengthens the body and improves posture, by improving muscle tone and flexibility, and promotes a feeling of calm and relaxation. Devotees also report increased energy levels and better quality sleep, along with a host of other physical and emotional benefits.
Based on slow, gentle movements combined with deep breathing and meditation, the ancient Chinese art of Tai Chi is practised by millions of people around the world. And because the movements are low impact, it's suitable for all ages and fitness levels. According to Chinese medicine, Tai Chi is said to improve the flow of energy through the body. Those who practise it regularly report feelings of wellbeing and calm, making it a good choice for those suffering from stress or anxiety. As the movements involved are controlled and precise, it's best to find a class to learn how to master them properly. If you're unable to find one near you, there are books, DVDs and online videos available to teach you the basic movements.
Why it's good for you: Tai Chi is believed to improve strength, flexibility and balance, making it ideal for those suffering with arthritis and older people – especially those wanting to reduce the risk of falls. Those who practise it regularly report reduced pain and stiffness, enhanced sleep and an overall sense of wellbeing.
Whether you choose salsa, ballroom or jive, dancing can be the perfect quick-step to fitness. If you are new to dance or just a little rusty, lessons are a good place to start – as well as being a fun way to meet new people. If you're not confident with complicated footwork, or aren't sure which style is right for you, Ceroc is an ideal choice. Often described as a fusion of salsa and jive, it uses steps from a variety of dance styles, including French Jive, Swing, Lindy Hop and Rock and Roll, along with footwork and hand patterns similar to the Merengue. Of course, once you've mastered the basics, you might want to take things more seriously with competitive ballroom dancing or 'Dancesport'. Competitions range from the famous Blackpool Dance Festival to amateur events, usually grouped by age and experience.
Why it's good for you: Dancing is a great way to enjoy an aerobic workout and burn calories without even noticing. You can expect to burn between 200 and 400 calories in 30 minutes – depending on how vigorously you exercise and your weight. In addition, the side-to-side movements of many steps strengthen the body's weight bearing bones, helping to prevent osteoporosis.
Cycling is enjoying a huge surge in popularity right now – in part thanks to Bradley Wiggins' triumph in the Tour De France and Great Britain's success in this summer's sporting games. Luckily, a variety of groups and events have been set up to cater for novice riders, making it easier than ever to get on your bike. Cycling to work has also boomed in recent years, with thousands of people jumping at the chance to get fit and save money at the same time. The government even runs a scheme allowing workers to buy a new bike tax-free basis via their employer. Whatever kind of cycling you do, it goes without saying to buy a decent helmet and ride safely.
Why it's good for you: Cycling is a fantastic low-impact way to burn calories quickly - an hour of pedalling is estimated to burn 250 to 1,000 calories depending on exertion. As well as improving cardiovascular fitness, riding a bike tones and builds muscle, especially in the lower half of the body, and is often recommended to those with joint problems in the legs or hips. For many cyclists it's the sense of freedom and opportunity to get into the great outdoors which appeals, so it's no surprise that cycling has been linked with improved mental health.
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